Jim Witzel’s Trios and Quartets

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WITZEL: Feelin’ It.* Beyond Beijing.* Ms. Information.* ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN: Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise. LENNON-McCARTNEY: Norwegian Wood. G.&. I. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: I Loves You, Porgy. LERNER-LOWE: If Ever I Would Leave You. ADDERLY-LEWIS: The Old Country / Jim Witzel, el-gt; Brian Ho, Hammond B3 org; Jason Lewis, dm; *Dann Zinn, t-sax / Joplin & Sweeney 202

This is a rather strange album, occupying a somewhat awkward spot between entertainment and art. My first impression upon listening to the opening track, which sounds like a throwback to the soul jazz of the 1960s, was that it was not the kind of album that appealed to me, but the more I listened to the improvisations of the principal musicians, and the wonderfully intuitive way they interacted, the more impressed I was. Although most of these arrangements appear to be heads, Witzel and his talented group have a good read on each other’s musical ideas and bring them to fruition.

While my readers know very well that I am not a big fan of this modern trend towards soft-grained jazz guitar playing, it is what Witzel plays rather than the style in which he plays it that grabbed my attention. His solos are wonderfully creative, far better than the first “soft jazz” guitarists of the 1990s were. He does not play it safe; he jumps into the fire feet first, exploring extended chord positions and somehow landing on notes you’d never expect, giving one the thrill of hearing a master improviser in his element.

It also helps that tenor saxist Dann Zinn, who joins him on his three original pieces (which are not played sequentially as listed in the header, but sprinkled throughout the album), is also an exceptional improvising artist. In addition, Zinn plays some unusual notes and fills behind the leader, both during theme statements and later in these tracks. But there is a bit more. If you listen carefully to the opening track, Feelin’ It, you will note that it is somewhat irregularly composed; the second half of the initial chorus statement falls into an irregular rhythmic pattern that one seldom heard in the early ‘60s. And Witzel’s solo is an extension of that theme, using its harmonic base to improvise on but also extending the time—and the harmony—within his improvised choruses. In other words, the solo, too, is a composition, just a spontaneously created one.

This is not easy to accomplish. I assure you that I have heard literally hundreds of jazz soloists, on records and in person, who could not and did not improvise as an extension of the theme statement, but rather simply “took off” on rhythmic improvisations using the chord changes but not integrating them into the musical whole. Zinn’s tenor sax, in fact, does this; he is not really extending the composition in his solos; but since they follow Witzel’s, they almost sound like further variations on the theme, which is not altogether a bad thing.

Hammond organist Brian Ho, on the other hand, is just a rhythmic player who swings. He’s not as inventive as Jimmy Smith (old school) or Barbara Dennerlein (new school), who are the two best jazz organists of my lifetime. Were his bandmates not on such an exalted level, it probably wouldn’t matter so much, but since they are, my verdict is that he is OK but nothing to write home about.

And this is particularly noticeable in the many tracks in which Zinn does not appear, although in Witzel’s splendid rearrangement of Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise he introduces some fast, unwritten key changes not in the original song, which Ho also follows in his solo. This adds some variety to his playing that is most welcome. Ho’s finest contribution to this album, however, is in his providing consistently swinging and appropriate bass lines in the left hand, supplanting the use of either a string or electric bassist. He’s so good at this that, at first, I re-read the album cover to make sure that there wasn’t a bassist in the group. And he keeps this up even when he himself is soloing with the right hand, showing that he is a fine musician if not a soloist on Witzel’s or Zinn’s level.

I was just as delighted with the leader’s arrangements of other standard tunes in this album as I was with Morning Sunrise. In the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, he maintains the 3/4 time of the original song but displaces some of the rhythmic accents ever-so-slightly to create an entirely new feel, and on this track his ensuing solo is truly a gem, not just creating a variation on the original song but, as in Feelin’ It, creating an entirely new composition within the framework of the original—and here he stretches this out to two choruses, meaning that he creates two entirely different songs out of the original. I am completely in awe of his creative abilities. This man is a genius. Ho, rather inspired on this track, attempts to do the same. He does indeed create a new tune over the chords of the original, but doesn’t extend it to the degree that Witzel does, falling into the usual sequence-o-f-rhythmic-chords that most jazz organists use. I don’t wish to make this sound as if Ho is not a good jazz organist; he clearly is; he’s just not on the same level as the leader, Witzel.

Beyond Beijing is another original, this one in an upbeat 6/8 time. It’s more of a carefree romp, although the bridge uses rising chromatics which gives the tune an interesting shape. Here, Zinn is the first soloist up, and he does try to play Witzel’s game of creating an entirely new piece from the basic material. He comes close, but eventually departs from the structure of the first half of his solo to “take off” in his own angular style. As I say, he’s quite interesting and not really disruptive, but at times he does sound as if he’s playing with a different group. Then Witzel enters, bringing compositional order to the proceedings, and is again superb (despite the fact that I wish he would play the guitar with a little harder downstroke action, and not so softly).

I Loves You, Porgy was, really, the only track on this album that disappointed me somewhat, not for the playing of the musicians but simply because the tune itself is just so uninteresting (and always was to me…I am NOT a fan of Porgy and Bess except for Gil Evans’ rewritten version of it for Miles Davis in the late 1950s). Nonetheless, Witzel does what he can with it, playing solo throughout and improving its quality if not quite lifting it far enough out of its original form. But that’s the tune’s fault, not his. In his second improvised chorus, he resorts to some flashy triplets in lieu of his usual high-level creations. If he had wanted to do a song from Porgy and Bess, I wish he had chosen “It Ain’t Necessarily So” which is the best piece in the whole opera.

Witzel imparts a surprising, medium-fast Latin beat to Lerner and Loewe’s If Ever I Would Leave You although the middle eight, played by Ho, is in a straight 4, and it moves steadily into 4 once the initial theme statement is done and Ho begins soloing. We move back to the Latin beat for Witzel’s solo, here again at a high level, and again extended over more than one chorus. Ms. Information, another Witzel original, is not as fine a composition as the previous two, the melody line being vague and unmemorable, but again the solos are excellent.

The album closes with The Old Country, a song that Cannonball Adderly wrote for vocalist Nancy Wilson back in 1961. This is a nice, upbeat performance, and although the original tune wasn’t one of the strongest that Adderly ever wrote, Witzel again does wonders with it. In the context of Adderly’s soul jazz, Ho plays very well, but again it’s the leader who commands the most attention.

This is one of the few “standard jazz group” albums I’ve ever reviewed which held my attention not only from first track to last, but from chorus to chorus. Almost nothing played in these pieces is routine or predictable. Absolutely a wonderful set!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Celebrating George Crumb

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CRUMB: Dream Sequence (Images II) / Alexander Balanescu, vln; Rohan de Saram, cel; Douglas Young, pno; James Wood, perc/glass harm / Sonata for Solo Cello / de Saram, cel / Vox Balaenae / Kathryn Lukas, fl; de Saram, cel; Young, pno / Ensemble Dreamtiger / First Hand Records FHR130

I may have missed one CD, but to my knowledge this is the first album of George Crumb’s music to be released since his death, and I was utterly delighted to see that Rohan de Saram, one of the living cellists I most admire—not just because of his gorgeous tone and excellent musical style, but because he tends to specialize in modern music (as does American Matt Hainovitz)—is prominently featured here. The rest of his colleagues come from a chamber group formed in 1973 with the express purpose of exploring “music, old and new, from around the world,” Ensemble Dreamtiger, and it figures that I had never heard of them before. If you don’t specialize in the old-timey music that’s been around since Victoria was the Queen of England, you don’t get much promotion.

I rush to point out, however, that this is a reissue of an album originally recorded at a Dutch radio station in 1978, and so not technically a new album.

Of the pieces presented here, the only one I had in my collection, and thus was familiar with, was Vox Balaenae or Voice of the Whales for flute, cello & piano. We start off with Dream Sequence (Images II), composed in 1976 for violin, cello, piano and a percussionist who also plays an “offstage glass harmonica.” The latter is divided into two players, one using a glass harmonica consisting of three crystal goblets and the other using four, but since only James Wood is credited in the booklet as percussionist, I assume that he is playing both, probably dubbed in on tape. Although Crumb described this piece as representing “shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses,” the notes also tell us that the core of the work is the “high ethereal drone (reminiscent of Japanese Gagaku music), the piano and tuned percussion, [which] all circle around the famous chord in Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, movement 3, Farben (Colors). The original title of that movement was Summer Morning by a Lake.”

But even the score of Dream Sequence is bizarre, being one of Crumb’s “shaped” scores, which I would think is extremely difficult for musicians to decipher. Here is a sample page, part of which was included in the CD’s booklet:

Dream Sequence

You will note that amidst the percussion instruments are “5 Japanese temple bells,” and it is these plus the glass harmonica(s) that create the eerie droning effect. My readers know that I detest modern-day “ambient” music because it is usually soft, slow, tonal and drippy, but Crumb, one of the pioneers of ambient music, was NEVER tonal and drippy. Even in his slow, soft music, as here, he was harmonically and texturally adventurous to a fault. Like Harry Partch before him, he created sounds never previously heard by human ears out of instruments that were, in other contexts, quite “normal”-sounding, and Dream Sequence is clearly one of these. Both the theme statement, fragmented and almost as an allusion rather than a solid statement, and the variants move very slowly, building incrementally over a period of time. But it’s such a hypnotic piece that you can’t take your ears off it. Being a dream, one does not reach a fulfillment so much as just one dream stage after another. Each of the three solo instruments play individually and independently of one another, adding their minimalist contributions in bits and pieces, fits and starts, but never quite conclusions.

The solo cello sonata, composed as far back as 1955 in Berlin, is more reminiscent of Zoltán Kodály’s excellent 1915 cello sonata than of the kind of music prevalent in Germany in the ‘50s, which would have been either the influence of Schoenberg or Hindemith. Although Crumb was not yet “really” the Crumb we know from about 1964 onward, it is still a creative piece, occasionally using some light microtonal effects, and played superbly here by the then-39-year-old de Saram. The second movement, with its moving harmonies, borders on the atonal, while in the third Crumb throws in a (for him) quite jazzy syncopated rhythm, which de Saram captures perfectly.

Vox Balaenae, one of his most famous and technically difficult works (which includes some singing along with the music by the flautist, while playing his or her instrument), is also given a superb reading. This deeply affecting work is more modal than usual for Crumb at this stage of his development (1971), by which time he had written the completely atonal Ancient Voices of Children which became a surprise classical “hit” album on Nonesuch (sung by the late, lamented Jan de Gaetani), but it still fits into his style of the time, particularly by having the pianist play the inner strings of the instrument. The cello plays undulating, ambient figures to suggest a whale, then high held notes on the edge of its strings. This is as good a performance as the one by flautist Jan Krzeszowiec, pianist Malgorzata Zarębińska and cellist Marcin Misiak on the Dux label, and I think this recording even has more ambience around the instruments.

Wow, what a great tribute to Crumb. If you don’t have all three of these works (I didn’t) already, this is an indispensable CD for you.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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James Iman Plays Modern Music

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SCHOENBERG: 3 Klavierstücke, Op. 11. BOULEZ: Piano Sonata No. 3. WEBERN: Piano Variations, Op. 27. AMY: Piano Sonata / James W. Iman, pno / Métier 2837

James W. Iman is a Pittsburgh-area pianist and teacher who specializes in music written since 1945, although he also includes some modern works written in the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s. This, the first of three CDs he is contracted to produce for the Divine Art-Métier label group, is a reissue of his first album, released by ZeD Classics in 2017 (see cover art below).

original ZeD cover

It’s rather sad that such an outstanding and imaginative artist as Iman struggles for recognition while dozens others, equal or inferior to his communicative skills, thrive by simply rehashing the same old same old, but this is where classical music is at in the year 2022. Crank out albums full of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninov, and you’ll be hailed as a genius and make a ton of money. Specialize in music of your own time or at least in the modernist vein, and you’re relegated to the backwaters of being a “niche” performer.

From the very first notes of the Schoenberg Klavierstücke, one is aware of the fact that Iman is an artist and not just a technician. His phrasing and subtle use of dynamics (as well as occasional use of the hold pedal) mold and shape this music in ways I’ve never quite heard before. There is a certain “curvelinear” feel to his phrasing that attracts the listener, despite the fact that this is already 12-tone Schoenberg. In addition, his piano is recorded perfectly, giving his sound great clarity with just enough natural reverb around the instrument to not make it sound like an echo chamber. By binding the chords and phrases of Schoenberg’s music, Iman almost makes it sound more pentatonic than atonal—one might say, a cousin to Scriabin.

Boulez’ music, on the other hand, is even more severe than Schoenberg’s. With even the “melodic” line consisting of widely-spaced intervallic notes, there is very little room for lyricism, nor do I think the composer wanted any. Idil Biret, I think, has taken the best approach to his piano sonatas, playing them in a taut fashion which gives the music shape. Iman takes a different, more idiosyncratic approach, but despite his not being able to create a musical arch in this sonata, he still gives us various gradations of volume which enhance one’s listening experience.

With Webern, Iman is more able to create his brand of “atonal lyricism,” at least in spots, and this is in line with the way Webern conducted his own music (a few rare radio snippets survive to tell the tale). The name of Gilbert Amy (b. 1936) was entirely new to me, but alas, the music was not. It sounded like a clone of Boulez. And there is the limitation of the dodecaphonic style. You can only do so much with it; it is not a device that frees composers, but on the contrary, locks them into a pattern that they must adhere to.

Nonetheless, I will keep my eye out for Vol. 2 of this series, hoping that in it Iman will move on to some modern composers who were not all 12-tone. He clearly has a lot to offer. I only wish that his programming on this initial CD had been a bit more diverse in style.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Bychkov’s Mahler Fifth

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MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 / Czech Philharmonic Orch; Semyon Bychkov, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC5187021

Although Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov is considered one of the finest Mahler conductors of the post-Klaus Tennstedt era, he has only recently begun recording his symphonies. There is a Mahler Fourth on Pentatone with the same orchestra and the exceptional Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, and now here is his Mahler Fifth.

Poring through the booklet, there is no indication that this is the new “revised” edition of the symphony as recorded by Sir Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic, but the score changes are relatively minor. The most striking is at the end of the “Adagietto,” where the Ratz/Fussl edition is marked “Dragend” (“pushing forward”) while the Kubik edition is marked “Sehr Zuruckhaltend” (“very held back”).  In addition, the Berlin Philharmonic plays quite sloppily on that recording (although Rattle conducts it with great intensity). It may be difficult to believe nowadays, but when I was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, both the Mahler Fifth and Seventh Symphonies were considered very tough nuts to crack, but with time and newer recordings, they have finally taken their place alongside the more popular symphonies, Nos. 1-4 and the Eighth. (The Sixth, with its stampeding military sound and strange, long, hyper-hysterical finale, almost seems to be in a world of its own.)

From the very opening, with the solo trumpet playing those difficult triple-tongue triplets, everything in this performance goes right, although the entrance of the full orchestra doesn’t quite have the impact of Tennstedt’s live performance with the New York Philharmonic. Bychkov gives some interesting accents on the low string theme that follows, particularly the first time around, emphasizing the sadness of the music. The Czech Philharmonic, being an Eastern European orchestra, has a brighter sound profile than Israeli, Austrian or British orchestras in this music, which gives the music outstanding textural clarity if not as much warmth in the overall sound, but that is always a trade-off when one is leading such an ensemble.

There is no question, however, that this is a virtuoso ensemble, or that Bychkov draws the very best out of them. He knows this music as well as anyone and, thankfully, has his own ideas on pacing and phrasing, all of which work very well. One online critic compared Abbado’s Mahler to Rattle’s by saying that the former was an optimist while the latter was a pessimist, and it is true that a certain amount of pessimism, or at least sadness, permeates this symphony (along with the Sixth and Seventh). Bychkov also leans in the direction of pessimism, yet although his performance of the second movement is one of the clearest and cleanest I’ve ever heard, he just misses the hell-bent-for-leather feeling achieved by Tennstedt, Rattle or the young and very gifted Spanish conductor Jose Maria Moreno Malaga on IBS. It does, however, pick up in intensity about two-thirds of the way through the movement.

The Scherzo, too, walks a fine line between ultra-precision and excitement. I once knew a composer who very much liked performances of Mozart’s Symphonies that were unexciting but texturally clear because she enjoyed being able to hear the structure of the piece without interference from an individual interpretation, but I’m fussy. I want both, and this Bychkov does not give us on this recording. The same holds true of the “Adagietto.” It’s just…there. All the notes, but not all the feeling.

Thus I hear this as a very carefully prepared and meticulously played performance of the symphony that only occasionally touches the raw nerve endings that Mahler put into it. I need not add, for those who have sampled him on YouTube, that this is not how Bychkov normally conducts these works in live performances, but the recording is what it is. A neophyte listener will not be disappointed by it, and may in fact come to appreciate all its little details very well as this is the performance’s primary focus, but as an emotional statement, it comes close but no cigar.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Adam Rudolph’s “Sonic Elements”

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SONIC ELEMENTS By Adam Rudolph / Meta Recordings Publishing,  121 pp., $35

Adam Rudolph, a 67-year-old percussionist and bandleader, has here thrown his hat in the ring with the late George Russell by presenting the most challenging analysis of jazz improvising since the latter’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.  Russell’s book, which has inspired some and confused many, nonetheless led to his being championed by the late Gunther Schuller to head the jazz program at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Rudolph’s background includes being mentored by Yusef Lateef, with whom he recorded 15 albums, and playing with such famous modern jazz musicians as Don Cherry, Pharaoh Sanders, Muhal Richard Abrams, Dave Liebman, Wadada Leo Smith and Sam Rivers. He leads such ensembles as Moving Pictures, Hu Vibrational and the Go: Organic Orchestra, all of which, I admit, were new to me.

Rudolph describes the book thus in his Introduction:

The purpose of this book is to inspire both instrumentalists and composers to look at musical elements in new ways. This is not a ‘how to’ book, nor is it meant as any kind of music theory dogma. It is simply another way of looking at music materials. When we can think and hear in new ways, we can expand our creative approach and concept.

By playing and practicing inside the Matrices and Cosmograms a musician will develop dexterity on any instrument in ways that are different from practicing scales and arpeggios. This kind of creative involvement cultivates the capacity for spontaneous composition.

The major innovation in this book is Rudolph’s rejection of Western musical notation, substituting in its place a series of “Matrices and Cosmograms” which leave out such standard signs as tempo and pitch duration. Although Rudolph insists that these patterns “allow for multiple perspectives and interpretations of intervallic, melodic, and harmonic materials,” there is no question that they are confusing. Rudolph uses both “Hexatonic” and Nine Tone Matrices, several of each. Here is a sample of one of the Hexatonic Matrices:

Hexatronic Matrix 3

Rudolph explains this one as a “Symmetrical Hexatonic Scale” which “can be spelled with several different interval combinations, each having its own aesthetic implications.” Perhaps the musicians who have worked with Rudolph for some time find this sort of crazy-quilt presentations of tones both decipherable and helpful, but for me personally, as someone who has major problems doing Sudoku puzzles, I honestly could not decipher this or any of his other Matrices or Cosmograms. Give me the cycles of fourths or fifths, and I’m with you. Start mixing up pitches in a graph like this, and I’m lost. His Nine-Tone Scales I can follow; these are not baffling at all; but I don’t really see how they are supposed to help the improvising musician.

But obviously I’m alone in this. Both Henry Threadgill and Wadada Leo Smith, whose work I like quite a bit, have high praise for this system and claim it will help the improvising musician. Thus I decided to plunge further into the book, looking for word clues to break the cryptogram codes.

Rudolph gives these suggestions on how to use his Matrices or Cosmograms:

Start anywhere in the Matrix or Cosmogram to find and create your own melodic shapes of any length and duration

  • Use your taste and judgment to find melodies you like and then become fluent with them
  • Use your own phraseology, dynamics, range, and rhythm
  • Repeat any note if you wish, as many times as you wish
  • Any inversion of the intervals can be used. For example ↑1 (up a semitone) can be played as ↓11 (down a major seventh) or it can be played up ↑13 (up a flat ninth) and so on
  • If you discover a melodic shape you like, memorize it. Then practice it starting in all twelve keys. You can also practice it backwards. Vary the speed, range, and dynamics
  • While the Matrices use the 12 tones of Western music, feel free to use any quarter tones and/or tuning systems you are familiar with or wish to become familiar with
  • Practice approaching certain notes by sliding up or down to them in a way that sounds good to you. Then practice sliding down or up as you leave a note. Try this in different ranges and dynamics
  • Examine the intervals. Slow down and repeat a group of three or even two notes. How can you connect them? What is the rasa (the emotional color) implied in the interval? For example, does a minor third down (↓3) elicit a different feeling in you than a minor third up (↑3)?
  • Chords can be made by using some or all of the notes from a row (across) or a column (down)
  • Experiment with chord voicings
  • Experiment with chord progressions moving from a row to a column to another row, etc.
  • To add coloristic richness to a chord, you may borrow adjacent notes from outside the row or column used
  • Listen to the “language” of what you play in the Matrices. Find the phrases and shapes that allow you to “speak” or “sing” on your instrument
  • Bring your ideas, your music to it. Projecting deep feeling into the sounds you discover will bring them to life.

So not only is standard music notation out the window, so too is any semblance of Western harmony—even the Lydian mode of George Russell’s method.

As the book continues, Rudolph also introduces Raga Matrices, including a “Blues Raga,” a Mirror Matrix, Egyptian Scale Matrices, “Clustonic” Matrices which he defines as “a group of all the notes clustered between any 2 notes,” “Complexified Harmonics” which he describes as “sonic masking. In many cultures performers put on masks to transform themselves into a transcendent/mythic other. Sonic masking moves us beyond the familiar and ordinary. Transformed, the linguistic aspect of each instrumental voice is brought more into focus.” There are also “Octatonic Matrices,” “Ralph M. Jones’ Synthetic Scale Matrix,” etc. etc. He describes “Dream Forms” as

a relational bridge to that eternal mystery: the presence and intention of the unconscious. Dreams are pure nature, our aboriginal truth. Music can be considered as dreamlike soundscapes or sonic dreamscapes. Like our dreams, music holds the tension of ambiguity that intimates and points beyond itself towards the realm of mystery. It carries an energy that constructs bridges to those infinite worlds which otherwise lie beyond our rational capacities. In our dreams, images and feelings rise up unbidden and are connected in ways that often seem mysterious. Like emotive dream images, created musical sound gestures may be juxtaposed in unusual and sometimes surprising ways. A musical theme might return in a surprising manner, just as a face might return again in a different dream.

And I won’t even get into the “Tree Matrix,” “Whole Tone Row Clusters” and “Pentatonic Matrices.” Sure, I know what the whole tone row is, but a cluster of them? Same thing with the pentatonic scale.

Or maybe it’s just a matter of Rudolph codifying already-existing forms used by jazz musicians in a new and, to me at least, more complex manner.

The late Bill Evans once described improvising as a link the musician has to the “universal overmind.” Although the majority of people tend to think of Evans in terms of his soft, modal jazz trios, he was also able to play outside jazz and did so on several albums, particularly on George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age (1960) and his much later Living Time Orchestra (1972), an album that so infuriated Evans’ fans that they wrote him letters threatening to never buy any of his records if he made another one like it, so perhaps he was locked in to his own form of musical mysticism. Thus he and those musicians who thought as he did would probably appreciate this book. In a way, Rudolph’s theories seem to me related to Ornette Coleman’s “harmolodics,” although I can follow Coleman’s train of thought – that every beat within a bar can have its own harmony, unrelated to any other beat in the bar (which, in a sense, is also what Henry Threadgill does by thinking in terms of “one beat” while playing).

The concept of jazz composition and improvising as circular rather than a linear concepts actually began with Charles Mingus in the 1940s, although Russell came along shortly afterward. Then there was Ornette, and now Rudolph. Mingus was the only one of these not to codify his theories, but as long as he was alive and could train musicians to follow his lead, it worked—the same with Coleman, who talked harmolodics a lot but never really wrote them down. Yet Rudolph’s book even takes the concept of “Signal Rhythms,” which he relates to mantras as short licks repeated over and over, to new levels. His book includes graphs of these Signal Rhythms in such tempos as 12, 15, 18, 21 (divided both as 5-7-9 and 7-7-7), 24, 27 and 33, all of which can be rotated and some of which he relates to Ewe (West African), Mbuti (Central African) and Bemba (Central African) drumming. Here is a sample page showing his graph for Signal Rhythms in 33, divided as 9, 11 and 13:

Signal Rhythms

The only point in this book where I disagreed with Rudolph was in his promoting “Ostinatos of Circularity,” which were trademarks of John Coltrane’s playing. When I was young, and Coltrane’s My Favorite Things was a surprise hit record (yes, it really was!—in the shortened version), I was very impressed by this. I thought it a stroke of genius. Then, much later in life, I discovered that he had simply lifted these from Nicholas Slonimsky’s book of exercises, and at that point I realized that Coltrane simply relied on these as time- and space-fillers when he couldn’t think of anything else to play. So to me, at least, the use of circular chromatic figures in jazz improvising is a bit of a cop-out, the modern equivalent of older jazz musicians hammering on one note in different accents or playing a particular riff figure over and over. All of these create a hypnotic effect on the listener, but—they’re just time-fillers. But this technique is related to the way Indians play Ragas. I once attended a concert of Ragas played by Indian musicians at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music with someone very close to me. She was thrilled and found the music hypnotic. I was bored, finding it too repetitious and being stuck in the same chord for minutes on end, so obviously my tolerance for this is not as high as others’ may be.

After discussing some of this book with an acquaintance who is a very advanced jazz improviser, I’ve come to believe that Rudolph’s methods will probably work for advanced students looking for alternative methods of improvising, but not necessarily for the beginner or those of us firmly committed to Western notation. If you are an advanced student, this book is clearly for you and may open new ways for you to improvise. I’ve listened to some of Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra performances on YouTube, and can clearly understand what they are doing musically (and I like it). I just can’t think the way this book suggests although his musicians clearly can.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Gražinytė-Tyla’s Weinberg Symphonies

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WEINBERG: Symphony No. 7 / Kirill Gerstein, hpd; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen / Flute Concerto No. 1.* Symphony No. 3 / *Marie-Christine Zupancic, fl; City of Birmingham Symphony Orch.; Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, cond / DGG 00028948624034

Having already recorded Mieczysław Weinberg’s symphonies Nos. 2 & 21 three years ago for Deutsche Grammophon, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla here presents the Third and Seventh Symphonies along with the Flute Concerto No. 1. Although all have already been recorded by others, there are clear indications to me that, if finished, this is going to be the Weinberg Symphony set.

Comparing her performance here of the Third to Thor Svedlund with the Gothenberg Symphony, for instance, one hears very similar tempi but completely different phrasing. For the most part, Svedlund leads the music in a fairly chipper manner, propelling the fast passages with great energy. Gražinytė-Tyla also has energy to spare for those moments, but in the quieter, more reflective passages there is considerably more nuance, and with this greater nuance comes a wealth of feeling. It’s almost like hearing a recording in mono sound—very good, clear mono, but still mono—compared with state-of-the-art digital stereo. She just gets more out of her orchestra and, with that extra detail, a much deeper and more meaningful interpretation. One good example is the slow passage near the end of the first movement. Svedlund plays it with a Romantic sweep, but Gražinytė-Tyla relaxes it still further, as if trying to coax the sadness in this music to come forward.

Now, this is scarcely the deepest of Weinberg’s symphonies—the second movement is light and airy, in her hands as well as in Svedlund’s—yet even here she just gets something extra out of the music. Both she and Svedlund present a boisterous profile for this movement, but only she manages to elicit so much inner detail. And once again, she manages to get more serious near the end, playing the soft string tremolos as if they were made of ice crystals. In the slow third movement, she builds up the gradual crescendo slowly and masterfully. In the last movement, Gražinytė-Tyla drives the music forward with an almost manic force. But even when the opening tempo is fast, Weinberg’s symphonies almost never end on a happy or a triumphant note; sooner or later, the deep sadness comes into the picture, and this is so here—at least for a while. Then, he suddenly rallies for a fast ending, albeit one that sounds a bit more like a fit of panic than one of triumph.

Now mind you, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with Svedlund’s performance. All music is open to interpretation, and unless it is insensitive, there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward reading of the score, particularly in this early stage of Weinberg’s career when his angst was not so keenly felt. What Gražinytė-Tyla does is to “preview” the growing sadness in his music through her interpretation. This may or may not be what the composer intended, but it does work. It’s just another way of hearing the music.

And clearly, by the time he wrote the Seventh Symphony for harpsichord and orchestra in 1964, Weinberg’s sadness had clearly set in. In 1949, angry at his very modern scores, Stalin had his father-in-law killed in what was made to look like an auto accident, but the composer wasn’t fooled. He knew it was a “hose’s head” warning to him to play ball or face harsh treatment, possibly even death. By this time, the composer had formed a bond with Rudolf Barshai, conductor and co-founder with harpsichordist Andrey Volkansky of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and Barshai led the first performance of this symphony in 1964 with Volkansky as soloist. I have Barshai’s recording of this piece, and it is an exceptionally good one; so too is Gražinytė-Tyla’s. reading here. Both manage to maintain an aura of sadness even in the most chipper passages, which by this time was wholly appropriate. When passages are played with energy and forward momentum, they sound more ironic, like smiling through clenched teeth, than exuberant. Naturally, this new recording has far superior sonics to Barshai’s, but I still commend his interpretation to you as well.

Being five movements long rather than just three or four, Weinberg has a lot to say in this work. One is struck, for instance, how the solo harpsichord passages somehow manage to sound sad as well, since this is one of the most cheerful-sounding instruments in the world. I must give kudos to Kirill Gerstein for his sensitive, outstanding performance as well. The slow but loud and strident strings at the opening of the fourth movement are yet another indication of Weinberg’s internal angst. He was not only a unique composer in terms of musical style, using bitonality as both a means of expression and as an attack on insensitive listeners who couldn’t feel what he was feeling, but also highly unorthodox in form. His symphonies from about No. 5 onward have tremendous feeling in them, and this feeling must be brought out to make the performance work.

The opening of the last movement is wholly unique, sounding like a phone ringing that is not answered before going into soft, moving figures in the violins. Here, the harpsichord plays rambling, circular figures, busy music that basically goes nowhere. Weinberg continues to play with this phone-ringing motif on and off throughout the movement.

The Flute Concerto No. 1, evidently written to comply with the Soviets’ demand for accessible music, is an unusually chipper piece for him at this stage of his life (1961), but chipper it is. Coming on the CD between the Seventh and Third symphonies, it acts as a sort of upbeat emotional buffer. Gražinytė-Tyla’s performance, along with flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic, is appropriately upbeat. There is little or no angst here, but how can you make a flute express sadness and despair? Not even Beethoven or Mahler could pull that off.

An excellent CD, then. One hopes that Gražinytė-Tyla’s Weinberg symphony recordings will grow exponentially. She understands his deepest feelings, and is able to translate them into sound.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Perelman & Shipp On Their Collaboration

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Since I was one of the very first to review the new Ivo Perelman-Matthew Shipp album scheduled for release early next month (you can find that review HERE), I didn’t feel it would be right to do a second review. Instead, I thought it would be nice, and interesting to my readers, for Ivo to answer two basic questions:

  1. What is it about playing with Matthew Shipp that always seems to special? He really seems to bring out the best in you. And
  2. How is it that this CD came out so perfectly?

Mr. Perelman was kind enough to give me an excellent answer as well as an overview to his playing, as follows:

Matthew Shipp has in equal parts, an instinctual ability and desire to advance the logical music structures of our time along with the components that has served great musicians throughout history: mercurial ears, refined great taste and a masterful understanding of form, rhythm, melody and harmony.

I myself was exposed to and absorbed all these pillars of great music making while growing up in Brazil from  other genius music makers (like Heitor Villa Lobos, Bach, Chopin, Scarlatti, Pixinguinha and Paul Desmond) which paved the way for a future “chance” encounter with a master like Mr Shipp.

I believe that “Fruition” is a breakthrough recording in our already extensive recording career because Matthew is this incredible responsive player that will take anything you put on the table and always take it to the next level.

So for the past 2 years , after I had my sax mouthpiece of a lifetime broken and I was forced to embark on a journey searching a suitable replacement piece, I revised and perfected many technical fundamentals of music making.

Matthew just responded to this subtle change of sound physics of the new mouthpiece and further advanced our already highly ever-evolving symbiotic musical relationship.

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Even nicer, he was kind enough to ask Matthew Shipp the same questions, to which he answered as follows:

Ivo and i are brothers . We share a very similar set of things we want to do. We both have classical music backgrounds and have a completely open mind about how to organically deal with classical and jazz language in one piece as if it comes out of the same matrix.

We both experienced the full impact of romanticism in music at a young age but have searched hard to use romanticism in a very disciplined way .We both have felt the import of the linear aspect of bebop at a young age and being that the language we speak is free jazz – we have both sought to have a free jazz universe that extends in the same logical way that Charlie Parker’s music unfolds. We both have felt the full weight of the Coltrane universe at a very young age but realized that in some ways it is a dead end and that we would have to dig very deep to come up with something new that does not sound like we are on our knees worshiping Coltrane . We both love to explore so many various aspects of so many different types of music all with a mind to synthesize it into our our own unique brand of playing . 

As far as this recording all i can say is that our language gets deeper and deeper and deeper .

  thanks

         Matthew Shipp

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So there you have it, straight from the artists themselves. I really don’t think that any review or liner notes could be more eloquent than that. And as a bonus, Mr. Perelman was kind enough to send me these great photos of he and Mr. Shipp together. The smiles on their faces in the first photo (at top), I think, says it all. It really is a joy for them to play together, and in this CD that joy has truly come to…Fruition.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Zwilich’s Cello Concerto Released

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ZWILICH: Concerto for Cello & Orchestra.1 Peanuts Gallery for Piano & Orchestra.2 Romance for Violin & Chamber Orchestra.3 Prologue and Variations for String Orchestra / 1Zuill Bailey, cel; 2Elizabeth Dorman, pno; 3Joseph Edelberg, vln; Santa Rosa Symphony Orch.; Francesco Lecce-Chong, cond / Delos DE3596

This CD combines the first recording of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s 2020 Cello Concerto with older works from her vast catalog. As good as these other pieces are, it would have been nice to have had recordings of pieces that are not already out there on other discs. I’m sure that she has other orchestral works in her catalog that could have been used.

But that is just me talking, and the cello concerto is clearly good enough to have warranted its commercial release. Zwilich’s well-known combination of tonal, melodic music with modes and modern harmonies tossed in for flavor are clearly on display here, but so too is Zuill Bailey’s cello. In fact, except for his second recording of the Bach Cello Suites, issued a few months ago, I can’t recall hearing any other recording by him that so perfectly captures his gorgeous, manicured tone. In fact, judging just by those two recordings, I would go out on a limb and say that his tone has actually grown in richness and depth of sound. He used to sound like Emanuel Feuermann; he now sounds like Mstislav Rostropovich.

As in some of her other works, too, Zwilich throws in some clear jazz references—here, at least, in the earlier jazz-classical style of Gershwin, only a bit more modal. She also provides excellent contrasts between the cellist’s lines and the orchestra. For the most part they are on the same page (metaphorically speaking), but there are some wonderful moments in which they play opposing figures that complement one another. Near the end of the first movement, Bailey plays a note that is slightly “warped” in sound (as if he is playing on the edge of the string) which gives the music an unusual feel.

Although the second movement is not exactly continuous from the first, it sounds very much like a further development of it. Once again, the early jazz elements are prominent, in fact perhaps more so than in the first, and it’s wonderful to hear a soloist and orchestra that “get it.” My readers know that I’ve sometimes complained of classical musicians who, playing jazz-classical hybrids, seem to be reticent to play the rhythms with the right loose sound, but there is no problem in this recording. Bailey’s playing almost sounds at times, due to its incredible richness, like Charles Mingus playing the bass, particularly in the pizzicato section of the second movement where he plays against a trumpet solo and comments by the winds. I almost expected him to start improvising. Would that be an option in this concerto, perhaps in the form of a cadenza?

In short, this is a highly entertaining piece if not a terribly deep one, but Zwilich’s sure grasp of the musical elements involved make it work. The third movement opens with light, high strings, almost like the Act I Prelude to Lohengrin, before moving on to a few comments from the soloist. Writing such reflective, slow music for the last movement is surely unusual, but in time the tempo doubles as both lower strings and winds in the orchestra play syncopated figures. Bailey’s playing in this movement is simply outstanding. He brings a rare combination of seriousness and light-hearted insouciance to this music, which makes it work quite well. Eventually, the busy elements of this movement fade away, there is a moment of silence, and whet it resumes it is again moody and reflective.

This performance of the Peanuts Gallery is a good one, thanks primarily to pianist Elizabeth Dorman who gets into the spirit of it very well. Conductor Lecce-Chong and the orchestra also do a great job on “Snoopy Does the Samba.” “Lucy Freaks Out,” however, isn’t as energetic as the performance by Jeffrey Biegel and Alexander Jiménez on Naxos.

The Romance for violin and orchestra is a nice piece, developing from a somewhat over-sweet opening into some very interesting modal variations at a faster tempo. Again, the sound quality of this disc is simply phenomenal. The Prologue for string orchestra is clearly the most serious piece on the orchestra, and it makes a nice finale.

This CD is particularly worth getting for the Cello Concerto, at least. It’s a fun and interesting piece that all of you jazz-classical lovers will surely enjoy.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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A New Album of Schulhoff’s Music

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SCHULHOFF: Concerto for Piano & Small Orchestra / Dominic Cheli, pno; RVC Ensemble; James Conlon, cond / 5 Pieces for String Quartet / Gallia Kastner, Adam Millstein, vln; Cara Pogossian, vla; Ben Solomonow, cel / Suite for Piano Left Hand. Susi / Dominic Cheli, pno / Violin Sonata No. 2 / Millstein, vln; Cheli, pno / Delos DE3566

One of the marketing tools used by CD companies to sell recordings of music by German-Jewish composers of the interwar era is to use the phrase “Enträrte Musik,” which was used by the Nazis to denigrate the majority of the new-school modern music of their time, which they generally detested. There are, however, two problems with this. The first is that this phrase was applied even to those composers who were of 100% Aryan blood, such as Paul Hnidemith and Alban Berg, thus it was NOT a designation reserved for Jewish composers. The second is that it ignores a value judgment of their music on its own terms, assuming that all of the German Jews so banned were equally outstanding as composers, which is simply not true. Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Schulhoff were original and outstanding composers; others, like Hanns Eisler, were pretty awful.

In Schulhoff’s case, his ethnicity was further compromised by the fact that he was an openly avowed Communist; he even set the Communist Manifesto to music. I ignore this aspect of him because I admire the non-Communist scores he wrote, but let’s face it, Communism is one of the most evil political systems yet created by the mind of man. And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself why every country that goes Communist has hordes of their citizens risking life and limb to get the hell out of them.

But to return to Schulhoff, one of the reasons why he fascinated me in particular is that he was one of the few “new” German composers of his time who embraced the early, ragtime-inspired forms of jazz and incorporated them into many of his piano scores. Another reason is simply that he was an excellent and highly original composer. Once you become acclimated to his style, you find yourself addicted. He always surprises you, he is never boring, yet at the same time his musical structures are sound.

This CD opens with the Concerto for Piano & Small Orchestra, written in 1923. Since this ends with a movement entitled “Allegro alla jazz,” you know you’re going to get a taste of his interpretation of this music. For the non-jazz listener, I should perhaps explain that the reason Schulhoff (and at least a dozen other composers) didn’t really understand real jazz was that their exposure to it was through the recordings of ersatz “jazz” orchestras like Paul Whiteman’s, whose recordings were circulated throughout the world, whereas the real deal recorded by Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson and Bix Beiderbecke (excluding the very few Whiteman discs on which Beiderbecke was prominently featured) were not nearly as well known. To cite but one example, Schulhoff thought that Zez Confrey’s novelty piano piece Kitten on the Keys was real jazz while being wholly ignorant of Hines or James P. Johnson. Another is that he thought that a short-lived dance craze from the late ragtime era called the “Boston,” which died out in the U.S. by 1922, was a really hot dance step. Apparently, he never heard any recordings of Johnson’s Charleston or Ray Henderson’s Black Bottom, which were REAL dance crazes of the “Jazz Age.”

The Concerto opens with a piano cadenza which sounds a bit like a fantasia; it relies heavily on arpeggios using open chords and a modal sound while the orchestral winds play exotic, almost Middle Eastern-sounding motifs behind it. Dominic Cheli’s playing is light and fluid; he almost sounds like a French pianist, if you know what I mean. As usual, Conlon conducts with exquisite orchestral detail and colors if not always with a strong sense of rhythm, but this first movement in particular comes off very well because of its opaque colors and exotic nature. This is an unusually “French”-sounding movement for Schulhoff, so it all fits together nicely, even when the music becomes much louder and all the cats join in. At one point, the music comes to a dead stop, following which we get the slow “Sostenuto” movement, which uses a different theme yet in some ways seems like a continuation of the first. Yet even here, Schulhoff pulls the rug out from under us by giving most of the movement over to the piano a cappella, playing an even more extended fantasia based on the same exotic-sounding modes. When the orchestra returns, we now hear the clarinets playing the same strange arpeggios that the piano used in the opening.

Unfortunately, neither Chelinor Conlon give a strong enough syncopation to the “Allegro alla jazz”; they classicalize it just a bit more than it should be. The result is a performance that is certainly lively enough but more like syncopated classical music than, for instance, the hot ragtime orchestras of Jim Europe or Wilbur Sweatman. (But I doubt that most Europeans knew what Europe’s and Sweatman’s bands sounded like, either.) In the midst of this movement is a much slower passage featuring a lovely violin solo. I almost wished the violinist would have listened to Joe Venuti ro find out what a jazz violinist should sound like. But compared with other recordings, which also generally de-emphasize the jazz elements, it’s still a good reading.

Interestingly, the ad hoc string quartet on this album gives the first of the 5 Pieces for Strring Quartet a jazzier feel than Cheli and Conlon did in the concerto—and this in itself is remarkable because this first piece is a waltz! But yes, indeed, they syncopate the heck out of the music, and it works much better than you’d ever suspect. As the suite continues, I noted that they also syncopated the other pieces: “Alla serenata,” Alla czeca,” “Alla tango milonga” and “Alla tarantella.” I’ve not encountered any of these musicians on a recording before, but they clearly “get” what Schulhoff intended in these scores, even if the music just gives hints to most classical players. I’m certain that Schulhoff himself would have loved these performances.

The Suite for Piano Left Hand is again somewhat French-sounding and again based on what sounds like the Dorian mode, thus Cheli’s performance of it is wholly appropriate and in fact quite good. After the simpler, more lyrical second movement, the third is a “Zingara” played with a spiky (but not, here, a jazzy) rhythm. The fourth is an “Improvisazione,” both delicate and mysterious, while the “Finale” is a sort of tango. Since Schulhoff often conflated tangos with jazz, it should be played with a jazzier rhythm than that which Cheli gives it here, but on its own terms his performance is quite good.

Considering the rhythmic proclivities of Cheli on the one hand and the string players on the other, I was very curious to hear the Violin Sonata No. 2 to see how they managed it. I’m happy to report that Millstein’s looser, more syncopated rhythmic feel helps loosen up Cheli a bit more, at least enough that he does not get in the violinist’s way, thus this is a very satisfying performance.

The concluding piece on this album, Susi, was written in 1937, clearly a fox trot in what was then the new swing style. Cheli comes closer here than in some of the other pieces, but just sounds a shade less loose than he really should.

Overall, however, this is a fine album showing the various sides of Schulhoff’s diverse musical personality. Who says that once a composer reaches their maturity that all their music should have the same sound?

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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De Niese’s Brilliant “La Voix Humaine”

De Niese

POULENC: La Voix Humaine / Danielle de Niese, sop; Royal Opera, Covent Garden Orch.; Antonio Pappano, cond; James Kent, stage director / available for free streaming on YouTube (film released April 15, 2022)

My readers know how seldom I review opera videos on this site, and when I do I often have to either close my eyes and just review the singing or hold my nose while trying to stomach the often gross and disgusting images that pass for “stage productions” nowadays, thus it was my unalloyed pleasure to discover this video and even more pleasurable to write about it.

Danielle de Niese’s gold-plated voice has been familiar to audiences, particularly in Baroque and Mozart operas, for the past 22 years, but here she takes on an entirely new kind of role—and she is utterly brilliant in it. Filmed in April of this year, it is now on YouTube and I strongly urge you to watch and listen to it. Let me put this in capital letters and bold print so you don’t miss my point: THIS IS THE SINGLE GREATEST OPERA VIDEO OF THE PAST 20 YEARS.

Peter Francis’ production is filmed in close-up in a dark bedroom setting with minimal lighting. de Niese is not only very good in the role of the anonymous “Elle.” She is riveting, at least as good (although in a different way) as Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who has made this opera one of her specialties. I would urge de Niese to PLEASE continue performing it on stage.

The Australian-American soprano, now 43, is so drop-dead gorgeous that she looks no older than 30 in this film, which is of paramount importance. Whether you want to accept it or not, we live in a visual age, and image is important in the presentation of certain roles, this being one of them.

Poulenc & Cocteau

Poulenc & Jean Cocteau

In addition to the camera work being in close-up most of the time, so too is the microphone placement. Of course, de Niese doesn’t have the largest soprano voice in the world, but then again neither did Denise Duval, the creator of this role, and both had good enough projection to be heard in major opera houses, but the intimate miking gives the entire work a more visceral impact. You can feel each and every emotion that goes through Elle’s mind as she is on the phone, whether with her lover or the two wrong numbers. I wondered, however, about the use of what appears to be one of those hand-held phone receivers which have the touch-tone buttons inside the handle. I would have thought a cell phone would be more appropriate nowadays. But this is a very tiny nit to pick in what is otherwise an excellent, first-rate performance.

In addition to my hoping that she performs La Voix Humaine more often, I would hope that this video opens a world of other excellent contemporary operas for her to sing. A talent like hers is rare nowadays, and now that I know she can really act, I hope she doesn’t stop with this work but goes on to sing other works like it.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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