30 April 2018

April 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Jessica Krash — PAST MADE PRESENT (Albany Records, TROY1716)

April 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Jessica Krash - PAST MADE PRESENT (Albany Records TROY1716)JESSICA KRASH: Past Made Present: Music of Jessica KrashEmily Noël, soprano; Ian Swensen, violin; Robert DiLutis, clarinet; Tanya Anisimova, cello; Laura Kaufman, flute; Jessica Krash, piano; Members of the Washington Master Chorale; Thomas Colohan, conductor [Albany Records TROY1716; 1 CD, 73:31; Available from Albany Records, Amazon (USA), iTunes, and major music retailers]

As important to the continued viability of Classical Music as memorable performances by accomplished performers is the emergence of original, compelling compositional voices that communicate the modern world’s complex emotional conundrums in musical language that challenges, comforts, and uplifts. The legacies of previous generations of composers, bolstered by works of timeless, universal relevance, are sufficient to preserve the prestige of genre’s illustrious history, but its future cannot be secured solely by memories. In the words of the English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, ‘music is the social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is,’ and the world in this second decade of the Twenty-First Century direly needs gestures of friendship. There is no surer path to friendship than mutual understanding, understanding of the kind that can be found in—and learned from—Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, and, above all, it is a quest for compassionate awareness that permeates the music of American composer Jessica Krash. With Past Made Present, Albany Records’ commitment to providing this superbly unique composer with an avenue into the public conscience is furthered with recordings of music that both manifests and encourages accord achieved through self-examination.

The pieces on Past Made Present speak with a creative voice that is at once wonderfully original and gratifyingly familiar. All of the music on this disc reveals an extraordinary gift for part writing on an intimate scale that rivals the work of masters of the Tudor courts of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, allied with an innate ability to craft melodic lines that grasp and retain the listener’s attention. Like the music of Brahms, Krash’s works disclose a command of form that enables inventiveness. Also like Brahms’s best works, especially his chamber music, and Anton Bruckner’s remarkable F-major String Quartet, the music on Past Made Present is shaped by a bipartite, almost ambiguous sensibility that juxtaposes an abiding aura of disquiet with haunting purity of vision. The profound and the profane coexist, agreeing to disagree, struggling for domination but held in an uneasy—and truthfully human—equilibrium by musical discourse that refuses to take sides. This is music that advocates no ‘right’ point of view: rather, the sophisticated but appealing harmonic language invites the listener into exchanges that nurture contemplation. Here, there are no prerequisites. Krash’s music asks the listener to focus not only on how it resounds in the ears but also on how it reverberates in the heart.

Expertly sung on this disc by twelve voices from Washington Master Chorale under the direction of Thomas Colohan, Young Vilna is Krash’s harrowing, healing, and heartfelt act of grappling via music with the legacy of the Holocaust among the Jewish communities of her grandfather’s native Lithuania. With a text drawn from youngsters’ questions addressed to Ellen Cassedy, author of the seminal cultural study We Are Here, during her own time of study and self-enrichment in Lithuania, Young Vilna unites words of timely poignance with music that often seems to pursue thoughts beyond words’ abilities to fully embody emotions. Tenor soloist Eric Lewis emerges from instead of seeking to sing over the chorus, and the delicate fervor of his and his colleagues’ singing is equaled by the ideally-balanced playing of violinist Ian Swensen, clarinetist Robert DiLutis, and cellist Tanya Anisimova.

The insightfulness of the composer’s use of text emphasizes the ambivalence of the line ‘Today’s young people live in the present,’ suggesting undertones of denial, accusation, and self-doubt beyond the façade of disengagement. The emotional weight of ‘Maybe I would have been a killer. Would I have been different?’ is intensified by the lightness of Krash’s setting: this is a sentiment to be whispered, the possible responses too momentous for public discussion. The repetition of ‘Are Jews genetically geniuses?’ imparts a subtle crisis of identity, heightened in this performance by the unpretentious immediacy of the choristers’ singing. The ambivalence of Krash’s treatment of the question ‘Do you feel at home?’ recalls the final moments of Britten’s Death in Venice, its protagonist suspended between life and death and wholly at peace in neither state. Reconciliation, resignation, and recrimination echo in Krash’s music, pulsing in the subdued passion of this performance.

Krash found both inspiration and texts for the song cycle Sulpicia’s Songs in Mary Maxwell’s wonderfully singable translations of verses written by Sulpicia, a too-little-studied Roman poet and scholar believed to have been active during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Chauvinistic elements in academia persist in questioning the authorship of the handful of poems attributed to Sulpicia, alleging that the complexities of their language and themes place them beyond the capabilities of even the best-educated women of First-Century Rome. As is true of the collection of sonnets written by someone who may or may not have been christened with the name William Shakespeare, questions about the true identity of the author of Sulpicia’s poems in no way lessen their literary and historical value. What cannot be doubted is that an indelible aspect of an artist’s rôle in society is to see, sense, and surmise beyond the limitations of her time and place. That debate continues about whether, as a Roman woman of the First Century, Sulpicia could have written these poems is indicative of insecurities and prejudices that have nothing to do with art.

Accompanied by the composer, soprano Emily Noël gives new life to Sulpicia’s words, catapulted into the Twenty-First Century in settings via which Krash spotlights the often uncanny modernity of the poet’s conceits. In the opening song, ‘At last it’s come,’ Noël’s voice gleams with the enthusiasm of new discovery, and she contrasts this tellingly with the muted feeling with which she delivers the cunningly-crafted melodic lines of ‘The hated birthday approaches.’ The vocal writing in ‘Did you hear?’ is challenging in unexpected ways, demanding concentration that the soprano employs to perform the song with complementary control and cogency. Noël’s voice, a versatile and splendidly-trained instrument, is always diverting but is exquisitely beautiful in ‘I’m grateful,’ her flawless placement of tones throughout the range supported by enviable diction, and she subsequently sings ‘Fever’ with appropriate fervor and an infusion of vocal warmth. The spartan expressivity of ‘No longer care for me’ is forcefully imparted by Krash’s mercurial pianism and seconded by the singer’s forthright enunciations of notes and words. ‘For pleasure likes a little infamy; discretion is nothing but a tedious pose’ is one of the most delightful lines ever set to music by any composer, and Noël and Krash articulate these and all of the lines of ‘Let it be known!’ with impish humor and playful but polished musicality.

An enchanting pas de deux for flute and piano, Turns of Phrase here proves to be a perfect scene-changing interlude between Krash’s song cycles. Flautist Laura Kaufman joins the composer in a performance of the piece that sonorously explores all of the music’s eponymous turns of phrase. The music’s textures are fabricated from artful uses of the interplay between the instruments, hearkening back to Bach’s writing for flute in his BWV 1030 - 1032 Sonatas. As in all of the music on Past Made Present, though, Krash’s idiom is entirely distinctive, learning lessons from the past but applying that knowledge to the development of her own musical vocabulary. At the keyboard in this performance of Turns of Phrase, she and Kaufman intertwine thematic material with the skill of dexterous weavers. So eloquent are Kaufman’s tones that, in this traversal, Turns of Phrase is virtually another song cycle.

More than a millennium closer than Sulpicia in temporal proximity to today’s listeners, the minstrel Martin Codax benefits little in increased familiarity from those centuries. Almost every assertion about his work is punctuated by parenthetical question marks. Indeed, dating Codax’s life and work to the middle of the Thirteenth Century stems from the chronology of the contributions to the cantigas d’amigo in the Pergaminho Vindel commonly attributed to him, verses that uniformly adhere to the strictest form of these refined ballads. Utilizing Daniel Newman’s translations from the original medieval Galician, Krash rekindles the perspicacity of her Sulpicia settings with The Cantigas de amigo of Martin Codax, again navigating the courses of the texts’ physical and psychological landscapes with a seemingly inexhaustible flow of apt musical imagery.

From her first notes in ‘Ondas do mar de Vigo,’ it is apparent that Noël is as authoritative an interpreter of Krash’s Codax songs as of Sulpicia’s Songs, and she and the composer collaborate on a reading of the song that is as much a performance of chamber music as an interaction between singer and accompanist. The lulling motion of the sea cascades from Krash’s fingers, buoying Noël’s shimmering singing. The singer portrays the transition from ‘Mandad’ei comigo’ to the related but very different ‘Mia irmana fremosa’ as a significant change of mood, enhancing the shift in perspective with a broad spectrum of vocal colors. Noël’s and Krash’s phrasing seizes the meandering momentum of ‘Ai Deus, se sab’ora meu’ and ‘Quantas sabedes amare amigo,’ creating in each song an individual microcosm that is also an episode within the cycle’s narrative. Like the dénouement and deus ex machina of Greek drama, ‘Eno sagrado en Vigo’ and ‘Ai ondas que en vin veere’ escalate and resolve the music’s internal struggles, employing the words as catalysts for the music’s ultimate evolution. The energy of Noël’s singing and Krash’s playing electrifies the music, their camaraderie emitting a charge that crackles across the songs’ difficult vocal and sentimental intervals. Melodic distinction, niceties of harmony, verbal clarity, and ingenuity are important gauges of a composer’s proficiency as a creator of Art Songs, but the foremost test of songs’ merit is in how they respond not to study but to singing. In Noël’s performances, Krash’s songs are confirmed to be works of wit and innovation—and, most endearingly, exceptionally good music.

It is fitting that the final piece on Past Made Present should be Delphi — What the Oracle Said, an affectionate reminiscence for solo cello of an adolescent visit to Greece. Like a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela for modern Catholics, a visit to Delphi was for denizens of ancient Hellenistic societies both an end, the culmination of an arduous journey, and a beginning, the start of a spiritual voyage guided by the oracle’s wisdom—a dichotomy shared by Krash’s music. In Anisimova’s hands, the timbre of the cello is the voice of a primordial force that has not yet conquered worded speech, a siren call that needs no verbalization to be understood. Anisimova’s virtuosity encompasses not only the technical wherewithal to play Krash’s music with confidence but also the artistry to deliver this musical monologue with an actor’s theatricality. With this music, the oracle speaks of the continuity resilience and renewal, qualities that define the cellist’s playing.

Prominent among music’s marvels is the power to access regions of the psyche that hide their secrets from ordinary modes of communication. Music can reclaim memories from oblivion and reignite dormant feelings, but it, too, must be reclaimed and reignited in order to survive the indifference of societies too frenetically-paced to stop and listen. Classical Music can never tame the din of modern life, so it must harness it and make of the noises of living a symphony of survival. In the pieces on Past Made Present, Jessica Krash transforms the bittersweet sounds of looking back and forging ahead into music that makes sincerity audible.

25 April 2018

CD REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein — MASS (K. Vortmann; Westminster Symphonic Choir, Temple University Concert Choir, The American Boychoir; Temple University Diamond Marching Band; The Philadelphia Orchestra; Y. Nézet-Séguin; Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009)

IN REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein - MASS (Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009)LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990): Mass – A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and DancersKevin Vortmann (Celebrant); Sarah Uriarte Berry, Julia Burrows, Morgan James (sopranos); Hilary Ginther, Bryonha Marie Parham, Lyn Philistine, Pearl Sun (mezzo-sopranos); E. Clayton Cornelious, Devin Illaw, Benjamin Krumreig, J.D. Webster (tenors); Timothy McDevitt, Kent Overshown, Nathaniel Stampley (baritones); Zachary James (bass); Douglas Butler, Daniel Voigt (boy sopranos); Westminster Symphonic Choir, Temple University Concert Choir, The American Boychoir; The Rock School for Dance Education; Temple University Diamond Marching Band; Student Musicians from the School District of Philadelphia; The Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 30 April – 3 May 2015; Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009; 2 CDs, 107:45; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In his Mémoires, passages in which make Mein Kampf seem like a paragon of humility by comparison, Hector Berlioz wrote that he ‘came into the world quite naturally, unheralded by any of the signs which, in poetic ages, preceded the advent of remarkable personages.’ Perhaps Jennie and Samuel Bernstein were similarly unaware of the artistic significance of the event when they welcomed their son Louis to the world on 25 August 1918. Like Berlioz’s 1803 début, though, the birth of the boy who would become Leonard Bernstein was an auspicious occasion in the history of music. In this year of celebration of the centennial of Bernstein’s birth, the prominent rôle played in the evolution of American music in the Twentieth Century by this son of Ukrainian immigrants is rightly being reassessed from new and perspectives, balancing appreciation of the sometimes flamboyant fervor of his conducting with fresh analyses of the contemplative brilliance of his work as a composer. From his still-potent Broadway scores to symphonic pieces that, like the music of fellow baton-wielding composers such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Paul Kletzki, largely have not entered the international repertory, Bernstein bequeathed to contemporary Classical Music a body of work in which virtually every facet of his musical personality is reflected.

Not even Bernstein’s least-heralded works are unknown, but, aside from West Side Story, not even his best-known and best-crafted works—the fantastic Candide, for instance—are as widely heralded as they deserve to be. This is especially true of his Mass, a pièce d’occasion of quality that should have triumphantly outlived its occasion but has received greater appreciation in print than in performance. Recorded during performances in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts with emotional immediacy that is all but impossible to achieve in recording studios [recording this atmospheric work under studio conditions would surely have yielded sonics of markedly improved balance and clarity, which might have increased the performance’s potency for repeated hearings], this Deutsche Grammophon Mass honors the score’s creator with an interpretation that shirks none of the piece’s difficulties and controversies. A product of the social and artistic contexts of a tumultuous period in America’s history, Mass was when new and can still sound radical when performed without complacency. Responses to every stimulus not found in Bernstein’s score ignored, this is a Mass that throbs with the true spirit of its composer.

Commissioned by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and first performed on 8 September 1971, in conjunction with the inauguration of the Center for the Performing Arts built in Washington, DC, to honor her slain husband’s cultural legacy, Bernstein’s Mass is a work that is as complex and multi-layered as the composer himself. Like Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Bernstein’s Mass is an indictment of the inherent hypocrisy of the modern era. Manifested in Mahagonny in the substitution of a hedonistic cult of consumption for conventional morality, the duplicity is portrayed in Bernstein’s Mass as a spiritual crisis via which the national conscience is dissected and found to be fallible but resilient.

Bernstein devised Mass as a ‘theater piece’ rather than a straightforward musical treatment of the Ordinarium of the Mass, and the work’s theatricality is especially apparent in the performance preserved on these discs. Bernstein scored the piece for an exceptional ensemble of diverse musical forces, and a particular joy of this recording is hearing the young musicians of the Temple University Concert Choir and Diamond Marching Band and students from the School District of Philadelphia performing with abundant energy, musicality, and enthusiasm. The composer’s writing for voices and instruments not typically employed in formulaic Mass settings, an integral element of his concept, met with critical skepticism when the work was premièred, but the brilliance with which these parts are executed in this performance validates the sagacity of Bernstein’s vision.

The easy virtuosity brought to the music by The Philadelphia Orchestra, Westminster Symphonic Choir, and the young men of The American Boychoir, whose training academy is among the most lamentable victims of the new millennium’s financial calamities, reveals the extraordinary vitality of the composer’s ingenuity. The Philadelphia musicians, professional and amateur, manage the transitions among idioms—operatic in the manner of Candide and the flawed but engaging A Quiet Place [a new recording of which, featuring an excellent cast and Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under the direction of Kent Nagano, is scheduled for release by DECCA in June 2018], symphonic in the mode of his homages to Beethoven and Mahler, and Broadway-esque, reminiscent of West Side Story—with keen awareness of both the individual implications of each stylistic component and how each part fits into the whole. A performance of Mass cannot survive haphazard musicianship: this performance thrives on its participants’ consistent, consistently incisive musicality. Every woman, boy, and man involved with this recording audibly approaches the music with unique points of view, but a particular success of this performance is that it is emphatically Bernstein’s Mass and no one else’s.

With vocal lines inhabiting many of the stylistic worlds explored by Bernstein during his career, the solo singers in Mass face unenviable challenges of range, diction, and versatility. The effectiveness of a performance of this music cannot be assessed solely using the criteria of accurate pitches and rhythms, not least because an aura of improvisational spontaneity is crucial to the realization of Bernstein’s musical and expressive intentions. The singers assembled for this performance of Mass constitute an ensemble of great variety and vitality, and their work engenders a reading of the score in which the equilibrium between words and music, meticulously cultivated by Bernstein, is maintained with unfaltering scrutiny of the dramatic significance of each phrase.

The mostly well-matched singers—boy sopranos Douglas Butler and Daniel Voigt; sopranos Sarah Uriarte Berry, Julia Burrows, Morgan James, and Meredith Lustig; mezzo-sopranos Hilary Ginther, Bryonha Marie Parham, Lyn Philistine, and Pearl Sun; tenors E. Clayton Cornelius, Devin Ilaw, Benjamin Krumreig, and J. D. Webster; baritones Timothy McDevitt, Kent Overshown, and Nathaniel Stampley; and bass Zachary James—are wholly credible as participants in a spiritual probe driven by a musical explication of traditional liturgy. The integration of disparate idioms is accomplished with laudable fluency, lending the traversal of the score the continuity and fluidity that it needs to truly lure the listener into the soul of the music—and, through the music, into the soul of America. That this is difficult music is obvious, but the vocalism provided by these talented, dedicated artists enables the listener to joyfully and truthfully echo the words of Walt Whitman: in their performance, one hears America singing.

The performance of Seattle-based tenor Kevin Vortmann as Mass’s celebrant is nothing short of a tour de force. With only a few notes at the lower end of the compass disclosing weakness, the singer exhibits vocal qualifications diligently adapted to the music—music that requires a blend of a good opera singer’s security throughout the range, an accomplished Lieder singer’s communicative acuity, and the charisma of a leading man of the Great White Way. Vortmann brings to the Celebrant’s music a timbre reminiscent of that of John Aler and a vibrancy that recalls the best performances of Mandy Patinkin. His approach to the part is wholly his own, however, mimicking neither the inimitable creator of the rôle, Alan Titus, nor any subsequent Celebrant. Vortmann elucidates textual subtleties not by exaggerating his diction but by remaining sensitive to the ways in which Bernstein employed words to propel vocal lines.

The depth of Vortmann’s comprehension of the composer’s musical architecture is evident in every phrase of his performance, beginning with an account of ‘A Simple Song’ that is both exciting and moving and continuing with a forceful Epiphany. In the Fraction sequence launched by ‘Things Get Broken,’ Vortmann intones ‘Pacem! Pacem!’ with the angst of a soul torn by violence and injustice, and the Allegro furioso statement of ‘Why are you waiting?’ explodes with doubt and sudden rage. Vortmann makes ‘God...said...’ and ‘Oh, I suddenly feel ev’ry step I’ve ever taken’ wrenchingly personal, delving into the sinister dimensions of dogmatism with terrifying honesty. In an instant, the listener also feels every step of the Celebrant’s voyage, Vortmann’s delivery imparting the catharsis of self-awareness. The Celebrant’s metamorphosis from instrument of ritual to self-sufficient Everyman is wrought with unerring histrionic instincts: the liberation of a symbolic scion of modern society from the drudgery of self-delusion is palpable. An amalgamation of the Evangelists in Bach’s Passions, the Simpleton in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Britten’s Albert Herring, and Bernstein’s own Candide, the Celebrant receives from Vortmann a mesmerizingly complex, cogent characterization.

Having recently conducted performances of Wagner’s Parsifal and Richard Strauss’s Elektra at The Metropolitan Opera, that company’s Music Director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin has vast experience with music sometimes cited as troublesome by fellow musicians and listeners. Performances and recordings have revealed him to be a masterful conductor of a broad repertoire including music by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bruckner, Mahler, and the too-little-appreciated Florent Schmitt, manifesting a far-reaching but not pedantic intelligence. His handling of Bernstein’s music in this performance of Mass, ebulliently youthful and galvanized by the impatience with the musical establishment that erupts from every page of the score, illuminates a close artistic kinship between composer and conductor. Executing the instructions provided in the music is something of which any competent conductor should be capable, but Nézet-Séguin shapes this performance of Mass with the sort of comprehensive mastery that Britten disclosed in his conducting of Schumann’s unwieldy Szenen aus Goethes Faust. Under Nézet-Séguin’s baton, the idiosyncrasies of the music that perplexed and displeased critics in 1971 sound inherently right: rather than missteps to be corrected, they are innovations to be celebrated.

Mass’s peculiar but engrossingly episodic structure, not wholly unlike Act Two of Parsifal, becomes an impactful linear narrative in this performance, the momentum of the Celebrant’s storytelling energized by Nézet-Séguin’s urgent but unhurried pacing. The conductor’s comfort with music from many eras is particularly advantageous in Mass’s pair of Meditations, here impressive as finely-crafted pieces with their own merits rather than forgettable as affectionate but decorative pastiches. In a work like Mass, it can be argued that, to transplant Thomas Jefferson’s observation from the halls of civic power to the concert hall, the conductor is best who conducts least—or, more to the point, least imposes his conducting upon the music. In the context of these DGG discs, it could almost be believed that, this group of musicians having assembled in Verizon Hall, a performance of Mass extemporaneously occurred like the proverbial hockey game that arises from an impromptu brawl at the ice rink. Its copious virtues notwithstanding, this is not music that scores hat tricks without adept coaching. Conducting with an exemplary fusion of zeal and perceptiveness, Nézet-Séguin unobtrusively coaches this team to unequivocal victory.

Perfection in Art is an imperfect thing. One pair of eyes gazes upon Pablo Picasso’s Guernica with the belief that the carnage would be more real to the viewer if striking colors gushed from the tableau. Other eyes study a kaleidoscopic work by Marc Chagall and wonder whether its message would be more forcefully conveyed by hues of grey. It is now fashionable to dismiss some of Bernstein’s works as dated, and there are indeed passages in Mass that are very much of the time of their creation. As the music is performed on these discs, Mass can no more be dismissed as a relic of the past than Guernica can be described as merely a well-known image. Still rousing after more than four decades, Bernstein’s own recording introduced Mass to the public beyond Kennedy Center’s walls. Overcoming technical limitations that mitigate its efficacy, this recording introduces Mass to a new generation of listeners with a performance that recreates the magic of the composer’s account on its own terms.