A System Of Weights And Measures

Often, that’s what criticism seems like to me. I take a work, look at what it tells me about itself, what it claims are its dimensions and weight, and then I perform my own measurements and compare them to its claims. Successful works meet, or exceed their assertions about their own scope and depth, works that come up short fail in small and large degrees. Occasionally a work exceeds even what it sees in itself, and those are the times when experiencing a work of art is extremely satisfying. I’ve got a large handful of recent CD releases that make various claims about themselves, some of which turn out to be false, others which turn out to be pleasingly modest.

First up is Fresh Piano , a compilation from a collection of composers performed by pianist Peter Gach, which aims high and lands low. This is a dull, weak recording. Although some may find the music enjoyable to listen to, there’s a specific goal to the CD; to survey music of Southern Californian composers and demonstrate their diversity. What’s demonstrated, though, is that their musical and compositional range goes from A to B.

These works are, for the most part, poorly made, technically and aesthetically. Madelyn Byrne’s and Norm Weston’s pieces are poorly organized, with phrases and ideas set next to each other without any effective sense of order and structure (including no purposeful disorder). Ellen Weller’s Jazz Suite has sections that sound like their titles – “Promenade/Funk/Rag” – but the results are stiff, hokey examples of each. Roger Przytulski’s Trinity and William Bradbury’s Chants Music are the most listenable, but they suffer from a commercial/New-Agey wan, shallow conception when not overly derivative of composers like Bartok. Even Gach is a weak link, sounding hard-pressed and awkward in the fast, angular passages of the music. Perhaps this is an accurate depiction of Southern California music, if so then it is a musically blighted region, which I cannot believe. I would think objective producers could make a better compilation, but Fresh Piano has the whiff of an insular, self-produced product.

Anton Bruckner is the heaviest of all composers, or grandest depending on your taste. The American Record Guide lovingly describes his music as conveying the sense of standing on the mountain top, surveying the mystery of creation. His Symphony No. 5 is perhaps his most abstract work, in an overall body that touches on a lot of abstract ideas. Its quiet, slow introduction sets us instantly in the middle of its world, without preparation, and its “Adagio” movement is arguably the finest from a composer whose mastery of the slow orchestral movement is unsurpassed.

Bruckner poses two difficult interpretive challenges, the first being technical – holding together large scale, long-duration works that do not follow standard ideas of structure and musical development – the second aesthetic – plumbing the expressive sensibility of an artist whose naivety and wonder at the universe and his Catholic faith were his defining characteristics. Neeme Järvi’s interpretation, while leading the Residentie Orchestra The Hague, emphasizes the technical side so much that it fails in both regards. While all the notes sound fine and full, everything is simply too fast; Järvi’s “Adagio” is a third faster than those of Barenboim and Skrowaczeski, and almost fifty precent faster than Karajan’s. The conductor’s idea seems to be that if he rushes through then momentum alone will hold the Symphony together. It’s debased. Bruckner works best when one accepts his other-worldly pace and thus can maintain focus on the connective tissue, his extraordinary modulations, while the substantial emotional beauty builds and grows. Järvi seems to hear Bruckner as something like Schumann, when he’s at the far end of that composer’s logic. This is a recording that cannot bear any of the weight of the music it means to convey.

In contrast, modestly specialized projects can bear yields greater than expected, and prove to have lasting value and power. It’s easy to think of a CD with the title Waltzes, Tangos and Cinema Music as a trifle, but this collection of pieces by Jacob Gade, played with sympathy, pleasure and effervescence by Christian Westergaard, is not only satisfying, but such a joy that it grabs the attention and never lets go of its charms. Gade, famous for his “Tango Jalousie,” wrote these pieces for specific purposes – to get people to dance, to accompany silent films – and they are so well crafted, so smart, so musical that listening to them is as full an experience as listening to Beethoven. His aims were limited, his means direct, his results exceeding his goals. He has no argument to make other than asking us to listen, and, no matter the cliché or predictable gesture, the music gives constant, great pleasure. The superficial stature of this collection in no way keeps it from being one of the finest, most enjoyable releases of 2010.

What’s not to love?

The same perspective applies to a recording of Samuel Arnold’s Polly, a sequel to The Beggar’s Opera (that opera and the characters are more familiar today from Die Dreigroschenoper), in which Polly Peachum travels to the West Indies for a rendezvous with Macheath. Arnold meant to entertain with the 18th century equivalent of Broadway, and Polly is tremendously entertaining, with strong characterizations, sincere but not overly done melodrama, and just enough vulgar humor to pique without shocking. The vocal music is lively and melodic, full of energy, and this recording is exemplary. There is excellent, stylish singing from Laura Albino in the title role, and the entire cast is strong. Best of all is the playing of the Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon. They’ve already distinguished themselves on recordings as one of the finest Baroque and Classical groups, and this may be their best performance yet, they make us believe that this is great music. Polly easily satisfies as a curio, the answer to an unexpected question, but the recording stands alone as a wonderful listening experience that one will return to frequently. Another top release for this year.

In terms of modest means, scope and outsized results, the yield per square foot champion may be San Francisco’s Meridian gallery. In a tiny upstairs room they have been presenting ambitious, creative music for years, and this year released a compilation entitle Earth Music, Ten Years of Meridian Music: Composers In Performance . This is an excellent CD, with contributions from the likes of Vinny Golia, John Bischoff, Pauline Oliveros, Ben Goldberg, Jon Raksin and others, the cream of the crop of experimental music in the Bay Area. The results are as varied as the performers, from meditative improvisations to realization of Anthony Braxton on asian instruments to live electronics. This is a focused set of performances, the musicians working to achieve specific results and succeeding across the board. The atmosphere of the recording gives the sound a sense that the room is larger than it is, but these are all live documents and the feeling that the musicians are working in mutual reaction with the audience is palpable. An excellent primer to an important and vital experimental music scene and venue.

Another fine survey of contemporary music comes from the Society of Composers, Inc. in their release Mosaic , a collection of pieces from Hee Yun Kim, Soon Jin Cho, Tasos Stylianou, James Romig, Margaret Fairlie-Kennedy, Sally Reid and Stephen Yip. Without bothering with conceptual goals or grand statements, the CD presents the music as is, representations of a group of composers with various ideas and styles. The strength of each piece gives the recording an underlying focus of quality even as the works themselves cover a broad range. If one general statement can be made, it is that this is music from composers who come out of an early-20th century idea of Expressionism, writing music that has an appealing amount of dissonance, dramatic energy and emotional depth. I’m especially fond of Kim’ opening “Memoir of Dong-Hak,” with it’s controlled, exuberant activity, Stylianou’s mysterious and surprising three part “Aneresis,” and Reid’s “Fiuggi Fanfare,” nicely written for a saxophone ensemble. Everything on the disc is of quality, however, and there is something to please and excite all sorts of tastes. In these releases, modesty saves the day and conquers the world.

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