McCloskey’s Fascinating “Zealot Canticles”

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McCLOSKEY: Zealot Canticles / The Crossing; Donald Nalley, cond; Doris Hall-Gulati, cl; Rebecca Harris, Mandy Wolman, vln; Lorenzo Raval, vla; Arlen Hlusko, cel / Innova 984

From the composer’s preface in the booklet:

From the opening poem I couldn’t help but reflect upon the parallels between the delirium of the reli­gious fanatic and the delirium of Soyinka himself during hunger fasts. Self-deprivation and hallucina­tions are not the sole prerogatives of the unjustly imprisoned, after all, but also common among zealots of another sort. Visions of God are hailed in prophets and scripture, but wielded as weapons by radicals and the demented. Soyinka’s own renunciations of self (“I need/feel/desire nothing.”) are renunciations and exhortations echoed in ultra-devotees from Buddhist monks and Hindu ascetics to Christian her­mits and the Taliban.

Is there then not a thin line between extreme devotion – zealotry – and radicalism? And that line is both personal and public. One zealot preaches against the errors of a different faith, another spews hatred towards those who hold that faith. One extols devotion, the other breeds divisiveness. We only have to turn on the television to see how small the step can be from self-righteousness to political/social op­pression or roadside bombs.

But it’s not just roadside bombs we have to worry about. I was composing this piece during what was the most distressing U.S. presidential campaign in modern history, when every day we were faced with words of divisiveness, demeaning, mocking and degrading “the other,” and images of our fellow citi­zens, red-faced with both rage and glee, shouting for the removal – even killing – of those of a different faith or ethnicity, while openly waving racist banners. Alarmingly casual suggestions to “knock the crap out of” those with whom they disagreed were not just empty rhetoric, and we watched with horror the footage of people punched, kicked, and beaten up.

And just as I was about to start composing the final movement, the election took place. Hate crimes in our own country immediately surged in the aftermath. I was shaken to the core. The words of Wole Soy­inka were not just generalizations or universal in nature, but specifically about us. Right here, right now. Zealot Canticles was commissioned by Donald Nally and The Crossing, with generous support from The Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University, and the University of Miami. I’d like to express my gratitude to Donald and The Crossing for their devotion to music as a living and always-relevant art form.

I completely concur with McCloskey’s view. I, too, saw the hate and divisiveness being hurled at supporters of Donald Trump on a daily basis; of the left’s fanatic screams for the removal of Christians and Jews in America, wanting them replaced by Muslims, and of radical leftist groups like Antifa literally beating up anyone who disagrees with them. I go to bed each and every night scared to death that we are not-so-slowly losing our precious freedoms, seeing the radicals shutting down free speech, invading political rallies to cause racial and political fights. My African-American friends are even more frightened than I am, because they know that if anyone even suspects that they voted for prosperity and freedom, they may not only be beaten to a pulp but ostracized from their community. As an old-line Democrat disgusted and appalled by what my former party has become, changing from a party of tolerance, open-mindedness and inclusion to blind, unreasoning hatred, I envision the end of civilization as we know it. Thus I embrace this work in that light.

That being said, the actual text of this work is a litany of religious fanaticism, but with the exception of one worldwide faith that insists on such a thing I see no relationship to America, where all religions are tolerated and considered of equal value. The radical Buddhist monks referred to by McCloskey exist primarily in Japan and Thailand; they are small in number and are considered outcasts by mainstream Buddhism. I was a Buddhist for several years myself (I now consider myself a Deist, based on the writings of Thomas Paine and others) and went to hear the Dalai Lama speak several years ago, so I am quite familiar with this. Nonetheless, I know very well that there are fanatic Christians who take it over the line; one need only recall the Jonestown suicide massacre or the number of mass shooters who claim “God made me do it.”

Taken on its own terms, however, Zealot Canticles focuses on how what begins as a simple or at least a sincere belief in a creed can explode into fanaticism, and applied in a broader concept this can also refer to Socialism and Communism, which are viewed by many as violent but necessary paths to take down the prevailing world order and replace it with their vision. The late Whittaker Chambers went from being a gentle man, first a Deist, then a Quaker, but eventually a Communist, who later rejected their views of “necessary” murders and genocide in order to “purge” the less rabidly faithful and create a new world order because he recognized that, in order to do so, one must purge one’s natural feelings of loathing violence and murder. All of this, and more, is either implied or stated in Lansing McCloskey’s text, based on the writings of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian poet and playwright.

McCloskey’s music is somewhat based on minimalism, using repetitive rhythmic patterns and sometimes motifs, yet constantly shifting and changing. It struck me as a more through-composed sister to George Russell’s great anti-war cantata, Listen to the Silence, although McCloskey’s music has a somewhat different profile.

And there is no question but that McCloskey was blessed to have an exceptional group of singers to perform his work. Both as an ensemble and in the solo spots, the singing is uniformly superb. All of the solo singers have fine, clear voices and exceptional diction, which helps a great deal.

The pain and fright of this work is clearly reflected in the composer’s music; occasionally, it is over the top in its angst, but not too often. The recorded sound is also very bright, almost metallic in places, which actually helps project the feelings of madness and menace in the piece although that, too, can become wearing on some listeners. McCloskey’s use of descending minor chromatics, i.e. in “I shall place werepe on every tongue,” adds to the feeling of madness in the text; in “I’ll drop ratsbane on my tongue,” the chromatics move somewhat sideways. Some of the music reminded me a bit of Priaulx Rainier’s song, Tom O’Bedlam. McCloskey also did a nice job of contrasting these “mad” sections with others that sound like religious music, such as “I turned to stone.” In “The man dies,” he also uses space (pauses) in a very interesting manner.

Towards the end, however, I felt as if the music became too consistently dirge-like. I understand what he was trying to do, but it didn’t quite hold my attention at this point. Nonetheless, a very fine and interesting work—more disquieting than healing, but interesting all the same.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Morlot’s New Berlioz “Requiem”

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BERLIOZ: Requiem / Kenneth Tarver, ten; Seattle Pro Musica; Seattle Symphony Chorale & Orch.; Ludovic Morlot, cond / Seattle Symphony Media SSM1019

The Berlioz Requiem is very hard to bring off on recordings because of its almost surround-sound quality when heard in person, particularly the section where the brass choirs play from different corners of the auditorium. The recording that I think pulls it off best is the old Leonard Bernstein version from the 1970s, recorded in the same cathedral in which the original premiere took place. It was recorded in Quadraphonic Sound but, for some strange reason, only issued as a conventional stereo disc, yet when it was played on a quad system you got the effect of surround sound.

My reaction to Morlot’s conducting in previous releases has been mixed. He certainly draws a great sound out of his orchestra in everything he does, but occasionally misses the mark in feeling. This was especially true of his performances of Henri Dutilleux’s music, which sounded prosaic compared to Charles Munch’s far more detailed and colorful readings. In this performance of the Berlioz Requiem, I felt that the opening Introit was not only a bit rushed but also prosaic in feeling. It also seemed to me a bit too loud, having none of the mystery of not only the Bernstein recording but even those of Dimitri Mitropoulos (which I also own) with Nicolai Gedda as tenor soloist, Munch (either of his recordings) or Colin Davis. It does, however, have the requisite “Berlioz sound,” meaning a very bright wind sonority, and good transparency of texture.

I did, however, like the opening of the Dies irae, although the engineers seemed to me to do very little to capture the surround sound of the brass choirs (I even listened to it through headphones after listening to it through speakers, and it’s just a 2-channel effect). Even Roger Norrington’s performance, which I didn’t particularly care for, did a better job (not to mention the Bernstein). They also seemed to me to be suppressing the volume at this moment (except for the loudest passage with the cymbals and tympani), which derails the impact of what I’m sure Morlot was trying to achieve.

The later portions of the piece, however, have good feeling to them; either Morlot or his orchestra seems to have loosened up by then, but the narrow dynamic range of the recording still inhibits the listener’s appreciation of Berlioz’ achievement. Tenor Kenneth Tarver, in the Sanctus, has a lovely tone and an incredibly easy-sounding high range if a slightly uneven vibrato.

In toto, then, a good performance if somewhat lacking in dramatic contrast as well as a bit tense in the first couple of sections.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Pyrć Plays Ekier & Symanowski

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EKIER: Colorful Melodies. 2 Preludes, Op. 1. 2 Mazurkas, Op. 2. Lullaby. Humoresque. Toccata. Mazurka, Op. 5. A Highlander Dance. SZYMANOWSKI: Etude in Bb min. 4 Mazurkas, Op. 50. Fantasy in C / Wojiech Pyrć, pno / Dux 1458

Here, young Polish pianist Wojiech Pyrć plays the music of two of his countrymen, Jan Ekier (1913-2014) and Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Although Ekier lived to the age of 101, his is the name I was unfamiliar with. As it turns out, he was primarily a pedagogue and a performer of others’ music who gave up his composing career fairly early in life. Like Szymanowski, he was fascinated by and devoted to the music of Chopin, but in his case the Chopin connection was deeper and more closely allied in style. My readers know that I like but do not love the music of Chopin; I find it too Romantic, too “goopy” for my taste unless the performances are somewhat muscular and exciting. Fortunately, Pyrć’s performances of these Ekier pieces fit that description, and harmonically, at least, Pyrć’s music is slightly more modern and a bit less sentimental than his model. I was particularly struck by the sixth and eighth of his Colorful Melodies as the most bracing and interesting of the set. An unidentified violinist joins Pyrć on most of the rest of the album, starting with the ninth and tenth Pyrć pieces. The 2 Pyrć Preludes, are very goopy indeed.

There is a strong Chopin connection in the Ekier Etude and first Mazurka as well, far less in his strange, enharmonic pieces that follow. These Pyrć plays with great delicacy and mystery, as they call for. When we finally reach Szymanowski, we hear a slight Chopin connection but music that is altogether more mystical, strongly influenced by Debussy and Scriabin. Yet he also plays them with a certain muscularity that reminded me of Carol Rosenberger’s wonderful Szymanowski set.

You may certainly enjoy the Ekier works better than I do if you love Chopin, and Pyrć is clearly a fine pianist. I look forward to his future releases, as long as they aren’t of Chopin.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Nikolas Anadolis Burns in Heidelberg

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ENJOY JAZZ FESTIVAL 2014 / ANADOLIS: Windows of Opportunity. Uncle Lefteris. Zu-Zu. Things We Used to Do Together. The Touch. Path to the Sky. Weaknesses. Like a Shadow. Gone Forever / Nikolas Anadolis Trio: Anadolis, pno; Simon Tailleu, bs; Jonas Burgwinkel, dm / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-471 (live: Heidelberg, October 13, 2014)

Greek pianist Nikolas Anadolis, who studied with Fred Hersch at Berklee, definitely has his own style. His approach is more varied and exciting; he takes more risks and pulls them off brilliantly, and his very talented rhythm section follows him every step of the way.

From a formal style, Anadolis’ compositions are not the most complex or groundbreaking out there, but they have a wonderful sense of lyricism and attractive melodies, something that many modern jazz pieces do not have. Uncle Lefteris is clearly based on classical form and style, opening with sparkling left-hand figures over which he plays equally sparkling right-hand notes. This style returns near the end, but in between Anadolis plays some really fine, swinging improvisations. Even in a ballad like Zu-Zu, Anadolis does his own thing, and really owes his principal style to no one else I can think of except perhaps Keith Jarrett, who isn’t anywhere as exciting or innovative a player as this.

A technical description of what Anadolis does here is possible but would be space-consuming. This is, in essence, jazz-classical fusion at its very best, and if the pianist tends to dominate the solo space he clearly earns it through his brilliant musical conceptions, although bassist Tailleu gets a fine solo in The Touch, a piece that has a Latin flavor to the rhythm, doubling the tempo in his second chorus in a very interesting manner, then playing in quarter-note triplets.

This kind of musical brinksmanship continues throughout this set, for instance in Path to the Sky which might be called a jazz waltz though it is really a classical waltz that tilts towards the jazz spectrum because of its high degree of improvisation. Anadolis also throws in some surprising key changes, then quickly and magically morphs back to the original tonality. In Weaknesses, Anadolis plays mind-boggling but crystal-clear keyboard runs that sound for all the world like something out of Rachmaninov or Medtner; this is truly astounding playing. He then morphs the music into an almost staccato march beat while continually improvising above it before loosening the rhythm while the bass and drums support him, the latter in an opposing rhythm. Eventually, the music becomes an almost mad-sounding mélange of notes, but Anadolis knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s going. He sounds like a combination of Jacques Loussier, Art Tatum and Glenn Gould. In Like a Shadow, drummer Burgwinkel, finally given a solo of his own, erupts like Buddy Rich on speed.

Anatolis continues in this vein throughout this recital, one of the most exciting and original I’ve heard in a very long time. This is truly some of the most exciting and original music I’ve heard in a very long time!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring the Music of Richard Arnell

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ARNELL: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Variations on an American Theme. Passacaglia for Solo Violin. BATE: Violin Sonata No. 1 / Patrick Wastnage, vln; Elizabeth Dunn, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0492

Toccata Classics is a label that specializes in the music of British composers, many of them barely known even in their home country. In this instance, the complete violin & piano music of Richard Arnell (1917-2009) was so sparse that the disc had to be filled out with a violin sonata by Stanley Bate (1911-1959).

Arnell’s music is typical of modern British music of the 1940s and early ‘50s: lyrical yet with modern harmonies to add interest. He was a fine craftsman and knew how to construct well-written pieces, yet what makes the music work here are the performances of violinist Patrick Wastnage and pianist Elizabeth Dunn, both of whom really dig in to it with energy.

The opening movement of the Violin Sonata No. 2, which starts off this disc, is typical: despite the tempo designation, Arnell vacillates between “Vivace” and “Moderato,” even using some decelerandos and a few full stops in the music flow, yet all of it is logical and fits together very well. In the slow movement, he introduces an odd stepwise pattern in the piano’s bass line that is briefly used as a transitional motive. The finale, too, has a certain quixotic feel about it that keeps the listener on his or her toes while listening.

The same aesthetic is heard in his Variations on an American Theme. As the liner notes confirm, Arnell’s “American theme” seems to be a sort of generic idea of his of what an American theme should sound like and not anything that is easily identifiable. Although composed in either 1953 (according to the CD inlay) or 1955 (according to the liner notes), it was not premiered until 1962, by which time Arnell’s musical style was surely considered passé.

Oddly, Stanley Bate’s violin sonata almost sounds like a carbon copy of Arnell’s style. It’s not a bad piece by any means, but it’s still a good piece. I was very much taken with Arnell’s Passacaglia for Solo Violin, an excellent piece and one of the most original on the disc. The final sonata, Arnell’s No. 1 for violin & piano, is a good piece but clearly not as good as his other works on this disc.

An interesting disc, then, if not consistently excellent in its musical quality.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Morten Haxholm’s “Vestigium”

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VESTIGIUM / HAXHOLM: Occam’s Razor. Vestigium*. Central Park West. Leviathan.* Obviate. Deep Sea Explorer.* A World Without End. ALTMAN-LAWRENCE: All or Nothing At All / Jonathan Kreisberg, gtr; Nikolaj Hess, pno; Morten Haxholm, bs; Ari Hoenig, dm; *Frederick Menzies, t-sax / Storyville SVL1014319

Morten Haxholm, a well-known jazz bassist-group leader in Denmark, presents here some very interesting music played with great brio and imagination. There’s a certain Tristano-like vibe to the opener, Occam’s Razor, a coruscating melody set to bitonal harmonies. The guitarist and pianist play in a somewhat understated manner but they really swing well and, thank goodness, there is no trace of a rock influence in Kreisberg’s superb improvisations. There is also a certain continuity to the solos that I liked very much; these are musicians who listen to each other, and thus pick up on the previous soloist’s ideas as a starting place for their own.

Vestigium is a 5/4 piece with displaced beats, which the group plays very well. Tenor saxist Frederick Menzies is added here to the ensemble for color, though he does not solo on this one. Central Park West is a ballad, but the melody line is not particularly memorable. As a bassist, leader Haxholm plays in an understated fashion yet holds the ensemble together beautifully.

I particularly liked Leviathan, a fast-tempoed piece with a sort of double-time shuffle rhythm underneath the principal beat. Once the rhythm straightens out and becomes more regular, Menzies, who returns on this track, takes a fine solo, and in the ensemble passages the band really swings. Obviate is another ballad, but a more interesting piece with a meatier lead line and some moving piano-bass figures in spots that up the tempo. The beat also shifts subtly for Hess’ piano solo.

Deep Sea Explorer begins with an intro in a quirky tempo, which alternates with a straightahead 4. Kreisberg really plays well on this one, as does Menzies on tenor, and drummer Hoenig contributes some excellent breaks. A World Without End is another jazz ballad.

The finale is an imaginative treatment of the old 1939 ballad, All or Nothing at All, with displaced rhythmic accents and a delicate guitar solo by Kreisberg.

In all, a superb album of consistently good group improvisations. I wish some of Haxmolm’s American counterparts would listen to this!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Enescu’s “Ghosts” Gets Its First Recording

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ENESCU: Strigoii (Ghosts). Pastorale Fantasy for Small Orchestra / Rodica Vica, sop (The Queen); Tiberius Simu, ten (Arald); Bogdan Baciu, bar (Der Magus); Alin Anca, bass (Narrator); Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Gabriel Bebeşelea, cond / Capriccio C5346

Here is a piece by Enescu that most people didn’t even know existed: his dramatic cantata Strigoii, or Ghosts, composed in the mid-1910s but lost during the first World War. The manuscript was only discovered recently and given to Cornel Târanu, who wrote the liner notes.

The text comes from a dramatic poem by Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889) about the premature death of King Harald’s bride. Much of the poem is sung by a narrator (bass) who explains that the grief-stricken king kneels beside his queen’s bier with bloodshot eyes, grieving for her, and then by Harald (Arald) himself, the tenor. Interestingly, Strigoii is translated into English here as “Ghosts” but in German as “Der Vampyr,” which suggests that his dead bride becomes not a harmless spirit but a vampire. The music is continuous, like Gurre-lieder or Bluebeard’s Castle, but broken into scenes, thus displaying Enescu’s skill in creating continuous musical narratives. Even more so than the Schoenberg and Bartók pieces, Enescu’s orchestral writing is the most complex and interesting aspect of the score. It does not so much mirror the vocal line as to provide a discrete soundscape over which the singing and narration occurs. Conductor Gabriel Bebeşelea, a name previously unknown to me, does a marvelous job with the Berlin Radio Symphony, bringing out all the drama and color of Enescu’s wonderful music. The only moment in the score that I thought sounded formulaic was the mundane major-chord ending of the second scene.

I was very unhappy with the wobbly voice of basso Alin Anca as the Narrator, despite his histrionic skills. For crying out loud, for a world premiere of a newly-discovered work by a major composer, couldn’t they come up with a consistently good group of singers? Fortunately, tenor Tiberius Simu has a splendid voice, clear and ringing, and likewise sings with great expression. Bogdan Baciu also has a magnificent voice, thank goodness, reminding me of some of the darker-sounding Slavic baritones I’ve heard.

Following Ghosts is an early Pastorale Fantasy for Small Orchestra, written when Enescu was only 18 years old (1899). It’s a nice, Romantic bit of writing, what I refer to as “GUCK music” because it’s the kind of thing you’d hear on my local classical music station, WGUC—tonal, Romantic, non-challenging to the intellect, but pretty.

The Pastorale may be a superfluous piece, but Ghosts is clearly a major work, and I’m very glad that Târanu was able to reconstruct it from Enescu’s formerly-lost manuscript. Well worth seeking out!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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