By Ralph P. Locke
Musicians active in Boston, Washington DC, and Australia discover previously unrecorded gems, including works by women composers and composers of color.
The general level nowadays of musical performance has risen around the world. Well-tuned orchestras pop up everywhere, and highly capable fiddlers and keyboard-ticklers are thick on the ground.
The present review features three CD releases from the past year in which professional musicians who are primarily active in their local area bring new or long-forgotten works to our attention, including a number of world-premiere recordings. The works clearly attest to the discernment and imagination of the performers who have selected the works and put time and care into learning how to put them across. And several of the pieces will be of interest to those looking for music composed by women or persons of color. (This is installment 5 in my “Listening During Covid,” a series in which I tend to focus on works or performances that are in some way unusual. Click here for installments 1, 2, 3, and 4.)
The Suite. The Lowell Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Orlando Cela. Navona Records NV6324. 72 minute
Until recently, Lowell, a former mill town in northeastern Massachusetts, never had a professional orchestra. The Lowell Chamber Orchestra is supported in part by funds from the Greater Lowell Community Foundation. Concerts are held at Middlesex Community College and at the Lowell campus of the University of Massachusetts. This enables students to hear live performances without having to travel far. The Orchestra’s conductor, the Venezuelan Orlando Cela, is a noted flutist who has often performed and recorded music by recent and living composers.
The Orchestra makes its recorded debut with the present CD, entitled The Suite. It consists of four suites of more or less dancelike pieces. Two of the suites are by composers from the early eighteenth century: Telemann and Bach. The other two are by composers who are alive and active 300 years later: José Elizondo and Anthony R. Green.
The Bach work is his beloved Orchestral Suite No. 2 with solo flute. The Telemann is one of his 135 “overture-suites” (basically the same genre as the Bach suite): more specifically, it is the tenth example — or surviving example — of this genre that the prolific Telemann composed in E minor. (He composed dozens more in other keys.) The Telemann work, like the Bach, features a prominent solo part for flute and turns out to be just as engaging. In both, conductor Cela also takes the solo flute part, and with virtuosic ease. In certain movements, tempos are invigoratingly fast. I felt as if I were at a live concert — something that I’ve been missing this past year!
José Elizondo was born in Mexico and holds degrees in music and electrical engineering from MIT. He here contributes a delightful three-movement suite entitled Recuerdos estivos (Summer Memories). The three movements were originally written as separate pieces for small chamber ensembles, including cello, flute, or both, but Elizondo has here expanded them for chamber orchestra, though with prominent parts still for flute and (in the first movement) cello. Each movement lasts only four minutes and offers enormously attractive melodies, cushioned by an accompaniment featuring familiar triadic harmonies. The third movement, “Despapaye,” combines Baroque traits with those of Latin American salsa in a particularly engaging way. Elizondo’s name is new to me, but I see that some of his pieces have been performed by such noted figures as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. He has been recognized by Boston’s mayor for his “commitment and dedication to the Mexican community in the city.”
Anthony R. Green has spoken out forcefully about how unwelcome African-American composers such as himself can feel at a typical classical-music concert and, even more so, a “new music” one. (See his powerful 2018 essay “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers.”) Here he brings to the “new music” table a piece intriguingly titled The Green Double: A Historical Dance Suite. It consists of two four-minute movements and, to conclude, an eleven-minute one. The first movement, “Protest Dancing,” is, he says, an imagined vision of the nineteenth-century civil-rights activist Octavius Valentine Catto “dancing in the midst of his activism.” The second movement, “Dance Reflections,” was inspired by three African-American women who each had a connection to Massachusetts and were all daring pioneers, in different ways: poet Phillis Wheatley, abolitionist Harriet Jacobs, and Mum Bett, described by Green as “the first enslaved Black person to sue for freedom and win!” (That was in the Massachusetts colony in 1780.) “Dance Reflections” is lyrical and touching, suggesting the sorrow and quiet confidence that each woman needed in her struggles.
The last and longest movement, “A Little Lite Music,” is, Green explains, a musical self-portrait, evoking “early hip-hop and classic gospel rhythms” but also bits and pieces of works from the Western art-music tradition that were important for Green’s development. I did not recognize the snippets (well, maybe a bit of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra), but enjoyed the variety of motives passing by, over quiet recurring rhythms in the percussion.
The Green Double contains extensive passages for two flutes, very effectively conveyed by Cela and the Orchestra’s flutist, Wei Zhao. You can hear the beginning of each track on the Lowell Chamber Orchestra’s CD here.
Pax Britannica. Robert James Stove, organ. Ars Organi 2. 59 minutes.
The organist and musicologist Robert James Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and has already been widely praised for his first CD, The Gates of Vienna, a collection of pieces from the German-speaking lands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Here I am delighted to draw attention to his second CD organ recital: Pax Britannica, a collection of compositions from Victorian-era England. (Full disclosure: I know and admire Stove’s writings as music critic and historian, including his much-praised biography of organist and composer César Franck and have corresponded with him. But I have never heard him play except on recordings.)
Some of the items on Pax Britannica are bouncy and jolly (e.g., Brinley Richards’s God Bless the Prince of Wales and W. T. Best’s Christmas Postlude). Others are solemn and reflective, such as C. W. Pearce’s Meditation in a Village Churchyard, Alexander Mackenzie’s Burial, and Charles Stephens’s Adagio non troppo (in F minor).
Of special interest, in view of recent calls for greater gender and ethnic diversity in musical life today, are a chorale-prelude by the composer and prominent feminist Ethel Smyth (who in 1912 ended up in prison for two months for her activism) and Melody in D by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). Smyth’s stirring work, published in 1913, is based on a famous Lutheran tune from the mid seventeenth century (“O, du schönes Weltgebäude”). Coleridge-Taylor — who was, somewhat confusingly now, named in honor of the famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge — was one of England’s most accomplished composers of the late Victorian era. The son of an Englishwoman and a physician from Sierra Leone, Coleridge-Taylor was sometimes described in his short lifetime (he died at 37) by such terms as “the African Mahler.” His evident talent brought him the support of many prominent individuals, including the composers Elgar and Stanford. His secular oratorio Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast became a standard fixture for choral societies in Great Britain and other English-speaking lands up until World War II. Many of his works are being revived nowadays, and Melody in D proves to be as engaging as anything in Hiawatha; its lyrical fervor is beautifully suited to what an organ can provide.
The disc also includes three fine pieces by more familiar names: Elgar (Vesper Voluntary, no. 3), Stanford (Andante con moto, Op. 101, no. 6), and Parry (Elegy in A-flat). Indeed, all of the works on Stove’s recital held my interest, not least the longest of them: a three-movement sonata by Charles John Grey (precise date unknown, but before 1914), and particularly its gentle second-movement: Pastorale.
The organ — a 1997 Kenneth Jones located at Trinity College at the University of Melbourne — is clear and full-sounding, doing justice to the needs of each work. Stove’s performances are basically straightforward, allowing us to hear what the composer wrote, but they are also sensitively phrased, not stiffly literal.
Pax Britannica is available from the Ars Organi website or on Spotify and other streaming services. You can hear half-minute excerpts of each track here. and read Stove’s excellent booklet-essay here. Similarly, you can hear excerpts from each track of his first CD (“The Gates of Vienna”) here. And, more good news!: Stove has just announced yet another CD, devoted to works by the French composer Alexandre Guilmant and several of his students.
Birds of Love and Prey. Deborah Sternberg, soprano, with pianists Mark Vogel and (in his own work) Andrew Earle Simpson. Naxos 8.579064. 61 minutes
My third and last CD this time around comes from a multi-hued soprano whom I have been privileged to hear many times since moving to Maryland: Deborah Sternberg. She is much in demand in the Washington DC area as an oratorio soloist with orchestras and choral groups, and she also teaches voice. Unlike certain performers who devote their debut CD to widely known pieces, Sternberg boldly offers three previously unrecorded song cycles. When the CD, on the Naxos label, was released in February 2020, Sternberg was planning to perform some of the works in recital at various venues in the DC area. Because of the pandemic, though, the CD has had to make its way into the world on its own. It can be heard through various streaming services (such as Spotify and Apple Music, and of course Naxos Music Library). All the tracks are available on YouTube.
Sternberg has entitled the CD Birds of Love and Prey because each of the three cycles uses poems having to do with birds. The title is also that of the first of the cycles, by Maryland-based composer Andrew Earle Simpson (b. 1967). Simpson’s fascinatingly varied Birds cycle takes advantage of Sternberg’s secure vocal production and wide range: sometimes the composer asks her to do stylized versions of bird song (that is, versions that he has stylized — he does not have the singer improvise). She complies with a mesmerizing variety of sounds (all quite beautifully poised, never harsh or squawky). Simpson selected texts from across the centuries: some anonymous, some Aristophanes (from, of course, The Birds), some Keats, some Tennyson — all very contrasting and all set with great vividness and wit.
The second cycle, by Eric Kitchen (another Marylander, b. 1951), is called The Olney Avian Verse of William Cowper and uses texts from the noted nature poet and hymn-text writer Cowper (1731-1800), an honored precursor of Romantics such as Coleridge and Wordsworth. (It is the only one of the three works on the CD not written directly for Sternberg.) Kitchen’s style is traditional and comforting — a bit like some of the gentler numbers in Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. A review of the CD in Fanfare magazine described Kitchen’s work as “encompass[ing] a range of moods, from ruminative to cheerful. It is a charming, sometimes lovely song cycle, well sung by Sternberg and beautifully played by Mark Vogel.” (Simpson accompanies his own cycle, just as vividly.)
The CD concludes with a cycle by Montreal-based composer and pianist Gabriel Thibaudeau (b. 1959). The poems are recent ones, in French, by Mykalle Bielinski, and include such evocative lines as: “De ton perchoir jusqu’au fond des histoires: Chante!” (in my translation: “From your perch on high, into the depth of histories/stories: Sing!”) and “Ils partent on ne sait où quand l’hiver les saisit. / Vers les jardins d’infinis soleils!” (“They leave for nobody-knows-where when winter seizes them. / Toward gardens of numberless suns”).
Thibaudeau describes his style as a kind of “modern impressionism.” The songs indeed sound at once familiar (Debussyan) and fresh. The texts can be found here. The beginning of each track on the CD can be heard here. The performances throughout are precise, full of character, and a delight to the ear — instantly attractive but gaining depth on repeated listening.
All in all, these three new CDs remind us of how vibrant the “classical-music” scene still is, what imaginative new music continues to be composed, and what wonderful older works remain to be discovered.
Stay tuned for more of my adventures in “listening during Covid”!
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York Arts, Opera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).