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Violinist Eleanor Dunbar performs on the Ensemble75 disc

Auxiliary Input: September 2017

Andrew Anderson reviews releases by local groups Ensemble75 and North Texas Wind Ensemble; plus a 2015 release of early music called Love & Lust.



published Wednesday, September 20, 2017

In Auxiliary Input, Andrew Anderson, a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library, will review classical and opera recordings, including by local organizations. We hope to tie them to local performances by guest artists with various orchestras and chamber music organizations.

For the September edition, Anderson looks at the first volume of a CD by members of local outfit Ensemble75; a 2015 release of early music called Love & Lust; and a new recording by the North Texas Wind Ensemble, of the University of North Texas in Denton.

If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at marklowry@theaterjones.com.

 

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Harmonic Allusions, Volume 1

Members of Ensemble75

Ensemble75

Release date: Sept. 1, 2017

 

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I wish I could call Ensemble 75 “Dallas’ best kept classical music secret,” because I know how people love that phrase, but I’m afraid I’m too late by a longshot. The secret has been out for quite some time now; this group, whose motto is “Where music comes to play,” has been offering imaginative programs for more than seven years, and they’ve got some big plans which I’m sure they’ll have no trouble fulfilling.

One set of those plans has already come to pass: they’ve issued a CD entitled Harmonic Allusions, Volume 1, (Available here) and it features seven musicians from the group on six tracks playing music from the late 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries, mostly from composers with impressionist leanings.

"Impressionist leanings" is a weird thing to say about Claude Debussy—he's more or less the defining Impressionist—whose 1915 Sonata for Cello and Piano leads off with Jolyon Pegis, the Dallas Symphony's Associate Principal, as the cellist. This unconventional sonata—two movements, neither corresponding in obvious ways to what most of us associate with sonatas—has enough memorable moments to carry its own CD, although it's great that Pegis provides it in the context of a varied offering of sounds more and less familiar.

The Samuel Barber Canzone, Op. 38a (for flute and piano, from 1961) is the latest composition on the disc, and arguably the most unassuming: a single short movement, apparently without unusual aspirations, and without overt virtuosic appeal. Margaret Shin Fischer, however, proves once again that she's a superb spokeswoman for composers that we're likely to dismiss—or I am, anyway—by virtue of their familiarity. I'm guilty of similarly taking Howard Hanson for granted, and she's the one who shook me out of that attitude in 2016 with her performance of Hanson's Serenade.

The first shocking moment on the recording, though, is the William Grant Still Suite for Violin and Piano from 1943, a work that may not be neglected—it's the only selection on the disc outside of the Messiaen that I've heard more than once—but has certainly been waiting for Eleanor Dunbar's attention.

Still presents a problem: he's a well-known African-American composer that nobody knows—he's probably the most well-known neglected composer there is. Or maybe we just need a new word for this species of neglect: we've been reminded that he wrote something-or-other so many times that we're induced to think we might have heard it, when we probably haven't. But if we have indeed heard anything by Still, it's probably the 1943 Suite, since it's one of his best-known works.

We thought we knew it, anyway, or at least I thought I did. Dunbar does a fantastic job on the piece, better than anyone else I've heard. I'm sure it's a challenge for soloist and accompanist to maintain the energy the piece requires—violin and piano play almost constantly through the work's 15 minutes. Evidently no one told Still you aren’t supposed to do that. Honestly, this recording sets a new standard for the work's performance, with beautifully executed double stops at a couple of climactic points, and a final movement ("Gamin") that Dunbar swings a little, so as to eclipse many earlier recordings, including the 1990 New World Records release, which was the means for my becoming acquainted with this work 15 years ago.

Like Still, Rebecca Clarke deserves a wider audience, although her name is certainly revered in viola culture. Steven Juarez's performance of her beautifully understated Morpheus (1917) ought to impel everyone to revere her name, too, or at least listen to more of her music. And if you aren’t currently revering the name of Arnold Schoenberg, maybe you’ll consider at least saluting the name of Early Arnold Schoenberg and revering the name of soprano Corrie Donovan for performing three of his eight Cabaret Songs from 1901. Harmonic Allusions, Volume 1 includes Schoenberg’s "Galathea," "Der genügsame Liebhaber," and "Mahnung," delightful songs that occasionally venture into parody, or at least irony. Ms. Donovan’s talents are such that you’ll probably wish she’d sing the other five.

The final track on the disc is the final movement of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (1941), the piano/violin movement entitled "Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus." Chloé Trevor's impassioned yet restrained performance leads me to hope for a future Ensemble 75 performance of Messaien's Quartet, but get it or not, I'm still delighted to be living in an area where musicians like these—make that these musicians, shall we?—can present exquisite works like this, exquisitely performed, and without our having to go very far out of our way to hear them.

One thing that mystified me for a moment, at least: Jonathan Tsay, one of the constants throughout Ensemble75's history, shows up on the front of the disc (right side, second from the top), and at the bottom on the list of works and performers. What does he do? He accompanies every other performer on this disc, and he does so with great flair and versatility. Do you need him to perform Xenakis? He's one of the few that I'd trust. Baroque? He does that, too. His sensitive collaborative skill is evident on every track of this disc. My only complaint is that he doesn’t have any solo tracks. Frankly, I was hoping for his Liszt B minor Sonata on this recording, but I guess that will have to wait. I'm just glad that this disc, as "Vol. 1,” implies more to come.

 

» Ensemble75 begins its 2017-18 season on Sept. 30, 2017 at Sammons Center for the Performing Arts.

 

Love & Lust

Elizabeth Hungerford and Andrew Arceci 

Elizabeth Hungerford and Andrew Arceci

Release date: August 7, 2015

 

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Love & Lust! Available here! Finally, we have a recording featuring lots of Hume, an underestimated, underappreciated, underperformed composer who was passed over for military promotion but did not let that stand in the way of his promoting himself—from Captain to Colonel, in fact. Allow me to explain.

Tobias Hume—Captain Tobias Hume, mostly, although at least once he's Colonel Tobias Hume—was a Scotsman and composer who is best known for his music for the Lyra Viol, a small bass viol that we'd probably call a cello with too many strings and a flatter bridge. The instrument was constructed so as to compete with the lute in the late Renaissance or early-early Baroque (think 3:45 a.m.); it could compete because, with its flatter bridge among other features, it could play on multiple strings, producing fuller harmony than was generally possible on bowed instruments; and with a bow, it could sustain the tones.

Hume would probably have called my judgment (underestimated, underappreciated, under-etcetera'd) damnation with faint praise, and judging by this recording alone, I should probably agree with him. He's represented by some stupendous little works, some for unaccompanied viol—such as "Life" and "Death" (or, as the manuscript has it,

"Deth"), and the incomparable duet, "Tobacco." In fact, Hume has more tracks on the recording than any other composer.

Love & Lust includes some names better known than Hume: Giulio Caccini, Christopher Simpson, Thomas Campion, and...oh yes, a couple of guys named Henry Purcell and Claudio Monteverdi. They should all be glad to have even one track on this disc, and there are others that may make Hume look famous, like Merula and Azzaiolo; but however you gauge the musicological weight of any of them, they add up to a powerful offering of late Renaissance/early Baroque (make it 3:20 a.m.) by a couple of artists that were made for this repertoire, if not vice versa.

The left side of my screen helpfully informed me that, if I like soprano Elizabeth Hungerford, I might like Emma Kirkby. Well, I've liked Dame Emma for some time, but Elizabeth is my new favorite early music (3:15?) vocalist. Honest, even without the printed texts of the songs, I can understand every word, even the Italian—and my Italian's not that great. Her diction is so good that you never wonder what she just said, even if you don't know the language. And her expression? She’s fairly restrained, but once in a while she engages in some impeccably rendered ornamentation; and she really cuts loose on Thomas Campion's "Beauty, since you so much desire," to the extent that—if it makes sense to say so—she gives the most tasteful over-the-top rendition of the song you'll ever hear.

The literal centerpiece of the album, Tarquinio Merula's minimalist masterpiece "Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna," is, at over eight minutes, the recording's longest selection, and its only shortcoming is that it isn't twice that long. But that’s Merula’s fault. There are lots of recordings of this fascinating little work—which cycles through a brief chord progression 162 times!—but none of them can touch this one, which may be unique in using the viola da gamba as a true continuo instrument. It’s an absolutely hypnotic, dramatic and riveting rendition by both performers, and I feel compelled to call it essential listening for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the early baroque, vocal music or otherwise.

One reason we might declare the entire album essential listening is Andrew Arceci's artistry on viola da gamba. The variety of sounds he is able to produce, the range of his expression, and the adventurous techniques he occasionally employs are simply astounding. Even better, his intonation is perfect from the first second of the album to the last, and as such he is the perfect accompaniment to Ms. Hungerford's sensitive, beautiful, and I daresay flawless vocal performance.

Every second of this disc—every bit, if I may be permitted to reduce its worth to its digital encapsulation—is exquisite. The performers asked TheaterJones to review this album, but I may purchase three more copies of it on my own, for fear that I'll wear several of them out. If I rated things with stars, I'd run out of stars on this one. 

 

 

Inventions

North Texas Wind Symphony, Eugene Migliaro Corporon, conductor

GIA Wind Works CD1004

Release date: May 12, 2017

 

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Inventions, The North Texas Wind Symphony’s (of University of North Texas) latest CD (available here), could easily have been issued with the title “Wall-to-Wall Crowdpleasers.” Judging by the list of works—before listening, that is—I would have offered that retitling with a good deal of irony. After having listened, I might still stand by that alternate title, but without the sarcasm.

Except for one dark horse, I saw a list of familiar names: John Williams, UNT Alum Michael Daugherty, Bruce Broughton, John Mackey, John Mackey again—hardly the “adventurous programming” touted on the ensemble’s web page; dependable might be a better word for it. Of course, every work on Inventions gets the kind of clean and spirited performance that we’ve come to expect from this group, and that alone is enough to warrant our attention.

Clean and spirited, yes, but John Mackey’s Ringmaster’s March is also a loud and colorful workout; it wields plenty of schtick, and it’s tastefully short. The same can’t necessarily be said about the other Mackey work on the disc, Wine-dark Sea—not that it’s not tasteful, but you can’t accuse it of being short. Not entirely Mackey’s fault, the work’s length was one of the specifications of the University of Texas Wind Ensemble’s commission: a work lasting approximately 30 minutes, which seems a bit like commissioning a 300-page novel or a two-ton sculpture.

Perhaps it’s that prescription of duration that prompts me to wonder if the two outer movements might have worked better had they been less discursive. For example, the first movement, “Hubris,” seems to have misplaced priorities in its single-minded dedication to the music of Odysseus’ triumphal march; much of the movement seems devoted to mere reprises of that theme (although I can read that aspect of structure as a musical outworking of the title).

I mentioned the wild card on the roster—I’m referring to Gernot Wolfgang, composer of Three Short Stories. Not knowing any of Wolfgang’s work, I was a little put off by the first movement’s title, “Uncle Bebop,” as well as by the composer’s description of the piece as an arrangement for winds of something previously written for viola and bassoon. Viola and bassoon. And undoubtedly pseudo-jazz, right?

Wrong. Three short stories represents no casual appropriation. It’s the real thing, or as real as jazz gets for a big band that’s this big.The composer, an experienced jazz arranger and performer, is speaking his native tongue. As for the piece’s being derived from something for viola and bassoon..., well, now I’d like to hear that. All three movements sound like they were meant for this treatment, and they're carried off with the tightest playing you're likely to hear this side of the One O'Clock. And the two-saxophone solo in the “Latin Dance” movement is spectacular.

Next to the curiosities and thrills of the Wolfgang, the biggest thrill was having my jaded expectations about the John Williams work upended. I was looking for the kind of writing in For the President’s Own that I’m familiar with from Williams’s film scores and high-profile fanfares: a seemingly endless parade of squares. On the contrary, this work has more in common with his concertos than his film music—he really gave the commission from the U. S. Marine Band his best. It features no facile symmetry, no calculated sure-fire hit tunes, and no harmonic cliches--just lots of well crafted, high caliber writing by a master who evidently has a split personality, and I hope he keeps splitting it for a long time hence. Parade of squares? This is a stampede of irrepressible irregular polygons.

Every issue by Corporon and the North Texas Winds has been loads of fun, and this one is no exception. Whatever you think of any of the individual works, it's always a pleasure to hear this group—and I'm aware that the personnel changes constantly, but that never seems to matter—giving whatever they're playing the greatest rendition of whatever it is that you're likely to hear.

 

 

» Andrew Anderson is a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. He holds a bachelor's degree in music composition from Baylor University, a Master's degree in music composition, and a Ph. D in music theory from the University of North Texas, and an MLS from Texas Woman's University.

» Auxiliary Input appears on the third Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.

 

 PREVIOUSLY IN AUXILIARY INPUT 

  • February 2017: A recording by composer Adam Schoenberg; and a Fort Worth Symphony recording from 2016 of works by Lutoslawski and Brahms, the latter arranged by the other Schoenberg
  • March 2017: Two volumes of a set of Wagner music transcribed for solo piano by Peruvian pianist Juan Guillermo Vizcarra; and two albums of songs by Fauré and Flegíer, both featuring bass Jared Schwartz
  • April 2017: Releases from pianist/composer Marc-André Hamelin
  • May 2017: Jaap van Zweden with the Hong Kong Philharmonic; and the DVD release of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach
  • June 2017Houston Symphony's March release of works by Dvořák; the Fort Worth Symphony's 2016 recording with pianist Vadym Kholodenko on Prokofiev's Concerto Nos. 2 and 5; and two 2015 recordings of pianist Alessandro Deljavan on works by Chopin
  • July 2017: A 2015 recording from Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal featuring a piece by composer Sam Moussa, which the Dallas Symphony will perform in September; the second volume of Alexandre Tansman piano music played by Danny Zelibor; and the much-talked about The Lost Songs of St. Kilda.
  • August 2017Cliburn Gold Medalist Yekwon Sunwoo; pianist Marc-André Hamelin performing Feldman's For Bunita Marcus; and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra on Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.
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Auxiliary Input: September 2017
Andrew Anderson reviews releases by local groups Ensemble75 and North Texas Wind Ensemble; plus a 2015 release of early music called Love & Lust.
by Andrew Anderson

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