Silent Dominions: Walking the Path with Upshaw and the ACO

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti artistic director
Dawn Upshaw soprano
Guest musicians for Winter Morning Walks:
Scott Robinson clarinets
Jay Anderson bass
Frank Kimbrough piano
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
April 27, 2012
8:00 pm

Since 1975, the Australian Chamber Orchestra has built a reputation for adventure. For this we can thank longtime director Richard Tognetti, whose eclectic programming has brought the orchestra back on its feet, lending every performance a dynamic edge that few chamber ensembles can match. For Friday’s performance at Bailey, which capped off a successful academic year for Cornell’s premier concert venue, the already phenomenal outfit was joined by soprano Dawn Upshaw, whose voice turned every word sung into a morsel of sonic caramel.


Upshaw

Yet before she even took the stage, I was overjoyed to discover that the ACO was to start us off on a bold foot with selections from George Crumb’s Black Angels. This work was something of a touchstone in my formative explorations of twentieth-century music, and to hear it live at last was thrilling. It may or may not have been the most perplexing facet of the concert for those unfamiliar with the opening blast of Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects. Horror fans will have recognized it from the 1973 classic, The Exorcist. Yet as I imagine was clear from the reaction of Friday’s audience—which began with a few chuckles of surprise (mingling with some, like mine, of nostalgic recognition) and ended with sighs of wonder—Crumb’s sound-world is less about fear and more about the music hidden in our shadows. The precision of the score also means that the Black Angels experience is carefully marked: we can trust in the composer’s obsessions.

The Five Pieces for Strings of Anton Webern, into which selections from Black Angels were shuffled, may on paper seem a curious weave. Yet as pairings before—with Shostakovich, Fauré, Stravinsky, and, most profoundly, Bach—have shown, the young Darmstadter’s music lends itself to a wide range of company, whose works provide windows, if not mirrors, of interpretation. From the sinewy, ghostly chasms of the opening movement to the whispered conversations of the last, the Five Pieces strike a balance all their own. The fourth and fifth, however, couched one of the evening’s most transcendent turns in the form of Crumb’s God-music, the beauties of which seemed to win over even the most resistant traditionalists. The movement featured tuned crystal glasses, each filled with water and bowed to ethereal effect while a cello wept in solitude, suspended from the stars in a sky blinded by battle smoke and wasted lives. It cried like an operatic scene change, revealing something in the night which can only be played but never sung, lest the voice lose itself in its own spell.

In light of this startling prelude, Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks, written for Upshaw, was like a massage after a grueling work week. For this Schneider drew on the poetry of Ted Kooser, whose unassuming Americana went down like sunset. Improvisation literally took center stage in the form of a jazz trio comprised of clarinet, bass, and piano. The wintry whip of the air struck us in the opener as the trio folded itself into the orchestral batter—a mere taste of the confections to follow. Schneider’s mastery of her palette became evident in the second song, “When I switched on a light,” which evoked the fluttering of moths on the piano’s dampened strings. A similar panache was to be found in the swirls of “I saw a dust devil this morning” and later in the incessant gales of “Our finch feeder,” the latter describing a group of birds struggling against the wind in the name of sustenance. Yet it was the third, “Walking by flashlight,” which was the evening’s highlight. This piece was cinematic to the utmost: an early-morning walk, animals peering out from the bushes at a protagonist who describes his circle of light on the ground as “the moon on a leash.” Lovely improvisations from pianist Frank Kimbrough made the experience all the more sweeping. From the first, one could see the concentration on Upshaw’s face as she attuned herself to every mood and image. Her unparalleled diction and deferential temperament broke the fourth wall and then some, and in the jazzy lows of “Spring, the sky rippled with geese” we were especially amazed by the depth of her range.


Schneider

My inaugural encounter with Upshaw was through her benchmark Nonesuch recording of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The work remains a personal favorite, and I can only say that the unfettered pastoralism of Schneider’s settings inspired anew what I heard in that first listening. These sentiments flowed logically into the three German lieder that followed intermission. In Robert Schumann’s Mondnacht (Moonlight), Upshaw seemed to bind Heaven and Earth with the power of her voice, while the two songs by Franz Schubert—Geheines (Secret) and the notorious Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden)—contrasted buoyant, flirtatious energy with the darkness of mortality. The latter’s low D rang soulful and true, ending the singer’s tenure for the night on a trail of liquid mercury.

In light of this, Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) turned dusk into midnight. Named after the selfsame poem by Richard Dehmel, its unsung words draw us back to Kooser: “Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood; / the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze.” All the drama of a Wagner opera was compressed in this work for strings into a droplet of darkness falling in slow motion amid knots of evening cloud. Between every inhalation and exhalation the orchestra drew a chain of sometimes-overwhelming consummations. Each harbored something of the next, wandering sparkling meadows with moonlit footsteps amid a changing landscape of rustlings and baying winds. In spite of the title, some of Schoenberg’s brightest writing can be found here, and its slow build from stasis into infinity is one of the defining transformations of modern music. The ACO gave it heartrending justice.

Tognetti and company bring a crisp and earthly sound to everything they lay a bow to, and during the encore they drew the shades on their fiery passions with a haunting rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s pensive tango, Oblivion. Yet it was Upshaw whose voice rang clearest in my mind as I left the hall. I couldn’t help but recall the words she sang in the final song of Schneider’s cycle: “This morning the sun stood / right at the end of the road / and waited for me.” So, too, did the shining, life-affirming star of her gift wait for us at the end of this long and winding series, embracing us warmly and with hope on an unseasonably cold evening.

(See this article in its original truncated form at the Cornell Daily Sun.)

Shostakovich/Vasks/Schnittke: Dolorosa (ECM New Series 1620)

 

Dmitri Shostakovich
Alfred Schnittke
Peteris Vasks
Dolorosa

Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Recorded June 1996, Mozart-Saal/Liederhalle, Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Orchestral transcription can be a contentious enterprise, obscuring as it enhances. Yet in rare cases its contours manage to take a shape all their own, living a new life somehow beyond the shadow of the original. Of this transformation we get two fine examples in Dolorosa, a well-conceived program from three distinct compositional minds.

The works are presented in chronological order, with a 1967 orchestration of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 as a “Chamber Symphony” coming first. The arrangement, by conductor and violist Rudolf Barshai (the only one ever approved by the composer), is brilliant in that it avoids masking itself and features a flowing chain of solos. The swell of grief that besets the first movement now feels like a cinematic shift rather than climatic one and leaves a lethargic trace on the second movement. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies takes a conservative tempo on this often-cathartic passage, figuring it as a page manifesting its own ink rather than one furiously scrawled upon. The macabre minuet that follows in the third reaches new dynamic heights in the current version, and allows us perhaps above all to feel what the composer himself read into the energies breathing through it (though, as Richard Taruskin reminds us, the motivations for doing so were questionable, the result of a personal revisionism). The quartet as a whole is an intertextual treasure trove, comprised primarily of snippets of Shostakovich’s own works and those of Wagner and Tchaikovsky, in addition to revolutionary songs such as “Tormented by Grievous Bondage.” Whatever the reason for writing this supposedly autobiographical summary, we can hear in the final two Largos an underlying nonconformity threatening to overtake us with each turn of phrase. But all of it is just so beautiful that one finds it hard to unlock it as a political document.

Those Largos seem to whisper throughout Musica dolorosa. Penned in 1983 by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks in memory of his sister, it spins from indubitable threads a tapestry to be viewed, experienced, and understood. Though it manifests itself with Shostokovichian pathos, its structures feel relatively smooth to the touch. And when the quietude is at last overtaken by an outpouring of grief, pizzicato accents mark the tempo like an aural tic chipping away at a world that could dispense with life so readily. As the orchestra subsides, violas scrape the edges like tears. This piece does for grief what Erki Sven-Tüür’s Passion does for its eponym.

Alfred Schnittke’s String Trio brings the transcription instinct full circle. Arranged for orchestra in 1987 by Yuri Bashmet as Trio Sonata, it is both the longest piece on the album and the one in least need of commentary. Like Schnittke’s quartets, the trio opens itself up to moments of grandeur, but quickly undermines them with mournful denouements. Proof positive that, despite the expansion that an orchestral arrangement engenders, the music becomes no less introspective and no less intimate, and perhaps delves even deeper into the solitude of its creation.

Shostokovich noted that his eighth quartet, while openly bearing dedication to all victims of fascism, was in fact about himself, about the death of his ideological self after having undergone such intense social pressure to join the Communist party. Yet if we take a quiet walk between the lines of that history, we find a landscape populated with staves and notes like countless others before or since. Our assumptions about Shostakovich as the victim of a sensitive political milieu often color the ways in which we perceive his music, which is perhaps the point: to read is to experience. There is, however, a danger here. One the one hand, hardship in the lives of any of these composers, much less of any others, can hardly be denied. On the other, the music is its own space, which though its attempts to grapple with something in art that cannot be safely engaged in life breathes into our souls without mitigation. In the end, there only the beginning.

John Surman: Road To Saint Ives (ECM 1418)

 

John Surman
Road To Saint Ives

John Surman bass clarinet, soprano and baritone saxophones, keyboards, percussion
Recorded April 1990 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Although we might feel tempted to take Road To Saint Ives, one of John Surman’s most stunning solo albums to date, as a portrait of its titular coastal town, Surman states in his liner notes that such is not the case. Aside from the peppering of folk-inspired melodies in the soprano solos, the music breaks its own ground on the way toward unique improvisatory continents. Among those solos, “Polperro” makes for a transportive opener, while the echo effect of “Perranporth” dances on a cloud of whimsy. These solos are the heart of everything that makes Surman such a listeners’ gift. Their quality of tone and pitch speaks of the supremely nuanced command he has over his instruments. Each has the makings of antiquity blown through its core, as if webs of time were being pulled into all-encompassing songs. Surman is likewise a master of the miniature, as exemplified by the album’s shortest track, “Trethevy Quoit,” in which a crunchy flock of low reeds sounds one of the most memorable congregations in the program. Building up from these are the ensemble pieces in which he overdubs a chain of settings. From Michael Nyman-esque forest walks (“Rame Head”) to flirtations with his favored sequencer (“Mevagissey”), he explores the contours of the most lyrical baritone one can imagine. One moment we are gliding through a classic sci-fi cityscape while the next finds us skirting the edge of a piano-infused drone (“Bodmin Moor”). And one can hardly ignore the multifaceted sound of his bass clarinet, which floats playfully on every ripple of “Piperspool” but which weeps liquid gold against the prayerful organ of “Tintagel.” Surman’s lyricism seems to mourn the extent of its own beauty in this, his deepest nod. So too may we lose ourselves in gamelan feel of “Bedruthan Steps,” where that unmistakable soprano darts in and out of every temple as if the entire complex were but an ocean reef, every note a fish that swims its coves as nature itself must breathe.

Like all of Surman’s solo albums, this is a dream made real.

Kenny Wheeler Quintet: The Widow In The Window (ECM 1417)

 

Kenny Wheeler Quintet
The Widow In The Window

Kenny Wheeler fluegelhorn, trumpet
John Abercrombie guitar
John Taylor piano
Dave Holland bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded February 1990 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

One month after the crowning success of his Music For Large & Small Ensembles, trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler gathered a handful of stars therefrom—namely, guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist John Taylor, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Peter Erskine—into this more succinct yet equally classic date. Abercrombie lays down a particularly soulful beauty in the opening “Aspire,” the first in a program of six Wheeler originals, and sends the frontman’s uncompromising insights into thoughtful ether with the stretch of a trampoline. A solo of sweeping intimacy from Taylor showcases further sensitivity among a quintet so attuned that it might as well be doing this while asleep. We do, of course, find ourselves wide awake in the dazzling light of “Ma Belle Hélène.” One by one, Abercrombie unwraps his charms like the sonic candies they are. Wheeler, meanwhile, adds feathers to the session’s growing wings, uncorking a rush of unbridled melody that elicits one of Holland’s most heartfelt solos on record against some of the cleverest cymbals in the business. A graceful pass from Taylor puts the waxen seal on this love letter to sunlit streets and alleyways. The title track begins with a longing cry from Wheeler, who finds in its descending motives a narrative of spun of cloth and time. Profundity abounds in this solo-sphere, Holland especially drawing inimitable shapes into the fogged mirror of memory, wiping away melancholy away as if it were a dust bunny blown out of sight by a sigh. “Ana” receives a more nuanced treatment here than it did on Wheeler’s outing with the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. That same modal intro speaks, sounding more than ever like a soundtrack to a film yet to be made. After a theme articulated in shadows, Erskine and Taylor turn to the light. Abercrombie positively dances on air and, along with Wheeler, carries us into the depths of hope. The swinging “Hotel Le Hot” finds the latter at his bubbling best, cresting the flames of surrender with every squeal. This cut is also noticeable for Erskine’s dizzying flavors. “Now, And Now Again” ends things in a gently rocking cradle for which Wheeler lays on the lyricism thick. Taylor charts the earth where once he stepped, where in his place now hovers only a sonorous ghost of what used to be.

Those who count themselves a fan of Wheeler, ECM, or boundary-crossing jazz in general can chalk this one as unmissable.

J. S. Bach: Motetten – The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series 1875)

Johann Sebastian Bach
Motetten

The Hilliard Ensemble
Joanne Lunn soprano
Rebecca Outram soprano
David James countertenor
David Gould countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor, organ
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Robert Macdonald bass
Recorded November 2003, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It was during a concert given by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in the fall of 1995 that a Bach motet’s masterful weaves of light and sound first nourished these ears. With infinitely branching listening paths before me, however, I never explored the motets further—that is, until the ECM connection came full circle with this wondrous recording from the Hilliard Ensemble. Or should I say, the Hilliard Ensemble in duplicate, for here the quartet is joined by sopranos Joanne Lunn and Rebecca Outram, countertenor David Gould, and bass Robert Macdonald for a special session in the familiar acoustics of Austria’s Propstei St. Gerold.

Very little is known about the circumstances surrounding the composition of these motets, but as Martin Geck’s liner notes remind us, their significance in Bach’s oeuvre is on par with The Well-Tempered Clavier, equally monumental as examples of counterpoint and absolute harmony. They are, one might say, extra-musical insofar as they express themselves far beyond the words at their core, beyond the note values ascribed to those words, and beyond the constraints that pigeonhole them into meters and divisions. Rather, they lose themselves blissfully in the finer details of their flowering.

From the first threads of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied one can feel the utter control these singers possess. Listening to them is like feeling the music being born from Bach’s mind, fresh and free from the pitfalls of excessive scrutiny. Lunn and Outram stand out especially, ringing out over the others like carillon overtones in a music overcome by a melismatic spirituality (listen also for their striking high that ends this opening motet). The shimmering space therein gives us some of the more intimate moments on the disc, nesting in mind and body with all the gentility of an autumn breeze. These motets all end on resolved chords, offering a sign of hope and tranquility in the wake of their roiling seas. On that note one can hardly praise this recording without highlighting the crisp diction throughout. This attention to linguistic color is perhaps what most separates it from those rendered in larger forces. Moments like the “Gute Nacht, O Wesen” portion of Jesu, Meine Freude are as tactile as our own bodies. Others of sheer transcendence abound, as in the final chorale of Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir and the Alleluia of Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden. Yet it is in the last, Ich lasse Dich nicht, du sengnest mich denn (often elided from Bach motet recordings, due to its contested authorship), that we find ourselves bathed in deepest calm, for here is the breath turned sacred, that it might begin a life of its own.

Valentin Silvestrov: Symphony No. 6 (ECM New Series 1935)

Valentin Silvestrov
Symphony No. 6

SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Andrey Boreyko conductor
Recorded June 2005, Stadthalle Sindelfingen
Engineer: Dietmar Wolf
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher

I would be surprised if Valentin Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 6 (1994/95, revised 2002) wasn’t someday recognized as being among the more significant of the twentieth century. Dedicated to Ukrainian-born composer Virko Baley, another powerful yet under-recognized voice, it speaks as might time itself. This world premiere recording is still the benchmark, given just the balance of violence and reverie it needs by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra under the capable baton of Andrey Boreyko.

This piece, perhaps more than any other in the Silvestrov oeuvre, brings a distinctly programmatic energy to the fore of his craft. The first movement gasps like a hospital patient awakening from a horrible accident, pangs of realization shooting through a strung body arching against the onslaught of memory. The second is in the same vein, only now obscured by breath. Yet the heart of this symphony is its third movement, which over a 25-minute span encompasses all that frames it and more. Its sprawling, flower-like opening fears its own beauty, and so it breaks the mirror and swallows it, shard by shard. And as countless lives flow past, uncaught, unexplored, and unheard, Silvestrov’s omnipresent piano presses down from the sky, the detritus of a sifting pan turned ever so slowly by cosmic hands after being pulled from the Milky Way’s tepid waters. Winds and percussion contribute to the mounting sense of doom, forever dispelled by the occasional ray of sunlight. The aching fourth movement assures us of this chain of hopes. Clusters of starlight move like molten lava, leaving a quiet smolder to speak for their passing and lighting up the night like the flames on the album’s cover. The fifth and final movement continues from the unbroken thread of the fourth, a dangling chain that when pulled unleashes the liquid heart of a cloud, the frustration behind a prayer. It is the symphonic equivalent of a master engineer who with attentive fingers turns the dials of some vast mixing board, so that each element swells into a world in which “staccato” becomes a sin to be vanquished with the all-consuming statement of the almighty afterthought.

Although he does chart earlier harmonic territories in the Symphony No. 6, Silvestrov simultaneously deconstructs the privilege of doing so, expanding upon each harmonic cell with biological persistence. If the above abstractions leave you with little feeling as to what actually transpires over its nearly hour-long course, then this proves only the weakness of my words and not of the music that prompted them. Listen and be moved.

Thomas Demenga: Hosokawa/Bach/Yun (ECM New Series 1782/83)

 

Thomas Demenga
Hosokawa/Bach/Yun

Thomas Demenga cello
Teodoro Anzellotti accordion
Asako Urushihara violin
Aurèle Nicolet flute
Heinz Holliger oboe
Hansheinz Schneeberger violin
Thomas Larcher piano
Hosokawa/Bach: Suite No. 5 recorded November 2000, Kirche Blumenstein
Bach: Suite No. 6/Yun: Espace I, Gasa recorded December 1998
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Yun: Images (produced by Radio DRS) recorded July 1985, Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Jörg Jecklin
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This album concludes Thomas Demenga’s Bach cycle which, begun in 1986, boldly sought out previously unimagined connections between the Baroque master’s solo cello suites (here, Nos. 5 and 6) and later visionaries. At every step along the way, Demenga has forced not a single hair of his bow in an arbitrary direction, instead finding in each pairing of works and composers a web of simpatico relationships.

Demenga plays the Bach suites a full whole tone down from modern pitch, a tuning contemporaneous with the time of their composition. He even uses unwound strings for a noticeably rawer sound. The Prélude of No. 5 is particularly visceral for it, those opening groans rising from the root of our expectations with withered leaves and rustling secrets. The Courante of the same no longer skips but struggles in an attempt to free itself from the swamps. The Sarabande, however, sings in a way I’ve never known it to before or since. The famous No. 6 Prélude also retains much of its inherent light and bridges over into one of the more heartfelt Allemandes on record. The penultimate Gavotte is also notable for its rustic edge. These are unlike most renditions out there, and for that reason may divide listeners. Either way, I feel as if I have spilled enough virtual ink in Bach’s name to leave my impressions at that and turn to what is most remarkable about this release: the works of Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa and his mentor, the late Korean composer Isang Yun.

Of Hosokawa’s music, Oswald Beaujean has said, “These sounds, to be sure, never appear in the form of musical imitation. Instead, they are reduced to their essence and always retain something deeply artistic.” And indeed as we wrap ourselves in the silvery veils of In die Tiefe der Zeit (Into the depths of time) for cello and accordion (1994/96), we may not help but feel the ground falling away at our feet. The music pulses like a dying body, a light blinking through a gauze curtain. The overall sound is akin to a Japanese mouth organ with a harmonic outlier skirting the edges of its reedy sound. In it we hear a story of famine, of broken families, of burned villages, of people torn from their places of worship. The accordion (played to weeping perfection by Teodoro Anzellotti) shows us the way through this wreckage, so that we might sit before a cross, steeped in the lessons of trauma.

Similarly, the Duo for violin and cello (1998) shows a propensity for swelling, silences, and pauses, though it is far more agitated—a stage of denial that circles an indefinable center. At some moments the instruments seem intent on filling up as much space as they can while at others they beg for that space to fill them in return. This asymptotic push toward silence is a blessing of contemporary classical music, at once sharpening our ears to the world of the microscopic and abolishing the prescriptive master narratives of our histories in favor of fragments. The recording is accordingly porous, attuned to mid- and high-range sounds.

Winter Bird (1978) for violin solo is something of a reprieve from the weighty emotions of all that precedes it. With it Hosokawa manages to bring the subtlety of the shakuhachi to those four humble strings as snatches of melodic energy hop and warble in a cold gray sky brimming with the promise of snow.

Yun’s sound-world is one step removed from time. The works presented here come to us already affected by tortured political past from a man who struggled with his “Eastern” origins and the decidedly “Western” musical paradigms into which he was indoctrinated as a classical composer. Yet these paradigms crumbled as he began to redefine himself in the serial theory of the Darmstadt School, and it was in that aleatoric openness and dematerialization that he came into his own.

Gasa (1963) for violin and piano is a fine example of his holistic approach. Its balance of disparate languages is precisely what makes it grow. This small slice of intrigue trembles with delicate inversions and implosions, a tone-setting specimen under the microscope, dying for self-awareness.

Espace I (1992) for cello and piano, on the other hand, unravels itself in threads of equal thickness and, being the most recent of Yun’s works surveyed here, reveals a composer at the highest stage of personal development. This piece is more uniformly weighted, for where the counterbalances add up to a denser harmony in Gasa, here the dynamics are pockmarked, fading as the piano grumbles like a belly in want of sustenance.

Images (1968) for flute, oboe, violin, and cello brings the project to an enigmatic close. This music takes shape in block chords and releases embryonic tendrils of life into starry ether. Each tone is given life and therefore the potential to occupy space. The combination of instruments is quite effective, all the more so for the committed musicianship under its employ. Like the album as a whole, it shapes itself as if in dire need of contradiction, turning the mirror just so, thereby allowing us to see that the faces we thought we knew were really just reflections all along.

Kenny Wheeler: Music For Large & Small Ensembles (ECM 1415/16)

 

Kenny Wheeler
Music For Large & Small Ensembles

Kenny Wheeler fluegelhorn, trumpet
John Abercrombie guitar
John Taylor piano
Dave Holland bass
Peter Erskine drums
Norma Winstone vocal
Derek Watkins trumpet
Henry Lowther trumpet
Alan Downey trumpet
Ian Hamer trumpet
Dave Horler trombone
Chris Pyne trombone
Paul Rutherford trombone
Hugh Fraser trombone
Ray Warleigh saxophones
Duncan Lamont saxophones
Evan Parker saxophones
Julian Argüelles saxophones
Stan Sulzmann tenor saxophone, flute
Recorded January and February 1990 at CTS Studio, London (Large Ensembles) and Rainbow Studio, Oslo (Small Ensembles)
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler had been writing for jazz orchestra for three decades before this recording, criminally the only of its kind widely available at the time, was released. With a cast list (mostly veterans of the London jazz scene) to make one swoon, ECM’s first release of the 1990s raised the bar on production, arrangement, composition, and musicianship that had been the label’s prime tenets since its inception in 1969.

It’s easy to praise Wheeler as player, but on Music For Large & Small Ensembles we are given a smorgasbord of his delectable talents as composer. This massive two-disc set begins with The Sweet Time Suite in eight parts. While the cradle of horns in which it opens sounds more like a closing, it is nevertheless coaxing and lovely. In Part II, however, we are introduced to the album’s major running thread: namely, the voice of Norma Winstone, who provides a crystal lining to every motif and, along with guitarist John Abercrombie, adds a Pat Metheny-like charm to many of the darker hues. The roundedness thereof is offset by the added punch of horns, giving us something doubly engaging. Stan Sulzmann’s heady tenor floats up and down the improvisatory ladder with unbound attention and primes us for Winstone’s unparalleled tintinnabulations in Part III. Although Part IV bears dedication to baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, it’s Evan Parker’s tenor that gets all the attention. Walking a fiery tightrope woven of guitar and cymbals, he navigates a swinging rhythm section toward Dave Holland’s quiet solo at the bass—an exemplary display of dynamic control into the sultry ending. Part V is another audible smile that features fine commentary from pianist John Taylor. Abercrombie’s own sensitive turn opens like an embrace warmed by sunshine. Winstone fashions Part VI into a lullaby, wafting through the air like a folk song into the thermals of altoist Ray Warleigh’s stunning flight. Part VII starts with what at first appears to be unnecessary distraction, only to reveal a profound dialogue between Peter Erskine’s drumming and the round of solos that embraces it. Wheeler’s fluegelhorn is especially engaging here and carries us with quiet confidence into a plush finish.

The second disc is a hefty selection of standalone originals. Of these, the opening “Sophie” is perhaps Wheeler’s finest. The pianism here shines like the sun alongside the joyous cymbal work. But it is the gorgeous baritone solo from Julian Argüellas, along with Wheeler’s own distinctive song, that truly makes this a standout in the collection. It is heavy yet flowing, dancing like fire without the threat of destruction. “Sea Lady” awakens with Parker’s avian reeds, sounding like a Philip Glass riff gone beautifully awry, and brings Winstone’s tender words into the mix at last. Through these she unties a knot with unrequited love and steeps its expectations in shadow. Abercrombie’s own ruminations presage Sulzmann’s forlorn twittering on flute and Wheeler’s vivid narrative. “Gentle Piece” is exactly that, all the more so for Holland’s soft spots and Taylor’s unobtrusive wanderings. Winstone’s lilting motives, wordless yet ever meaningful, speak like the voice of the sun in a dream without light. Another memorable alto solo from Warleigh promises wakefulness before the outro. The album’s remainder is taken up by two phenomenal trio conversation pieces with Wheeler, Holland, and Erskine, and a series of duets between Erskine and Taylor before closing out on the 10.5-minute masterpiece, “By Myself.” Abercrombie jumps through every hoop spun before him, setting off an enlivening round of solos that brings us into Wheeler’s final gesture of exuberance, by which he successfully concludes one of the most ambitious projects of his career.

Music For Large & Small Ensembles offers lush insight into one of jazz’s most exciting musical minds. This is music at the peak of ripeness, bearing fruit for all. It also boasts some of Steve Lake’s best liner notes, which make the physical product worth far more than any digital download available.

A Digital Workflow for Classical Music and Opera: eBook review

“In the digital world, portability is everything,” writes David Wank in the introduction to his latest eBook, A Digital Workflow for Classical Music and Opera. I’ve been following David’s informative blog, Classical Weekly, for some months now and was fortunate enough to receive a review copy from him of said eBook. Being a full-time grad student, portability is indeed music to my ears. As regular readers of this blog may know, I do most of my reviewing on the go, listening to albums daily on my iPod while dictating my thoughts and impressions into a digital voice recorder. These I transcribe later and polish as time allows into the finished posts you see here on between sound and space.

For this reason and more, having a clear and accessible archive of my music collection is key. For popular music, this has rarely been a problem. With the exception of compilations, CDs imported into iTunes are easily designated under band names, song titles, and genres. When importing and archiving classical CDs, however, things sometimes get tricky. Should I archive by composer name or performer? If the latter, which performer? Conductor, soloist, ensemble, or orchestra? How will I be able to access exactly the piece I am looking for without confusion? What if two or more composers or performer configurations are represented on the same album? Such are the questions confronting the classical archivist, and this eBook provides cogent and practical advice on how to negotiate these and more. I have worked my way around such issues through much trial and error over the years. I only wish I’d had something like David’s methods on hand from day one.

Most classical enthusiasts will tell you that, outside of attending live performances of course, CDs offer the best listening experience, and neither David nor I would contest this. But in our increasingly hectic culture we tend to do much of our listening through headphones and car speakers. In addition, CDs are not permanent resources. Regardless of how well one cares for them, accidents can and do happen, and with the technology widely available to the common consumer to create digital archives, there’s no reason why one shouldn’t take advantage. That being said, this book is less about meta-tagging (I, for example, have all of my 1000+ ECM albums archived in iTunes under the genre “ECM” rather than as jazz, classical, world, fusion, folk, etc.) and more about the creation and organization of a high-fidelity classical and opera library at near-CD quality without compromising too much in the way of valuable hard drive space. Still, there is plenty of tagging advice sprinkled throughout that will be of use to anyone.

Computer knowledge requirements are minimal: if you can create, rename, and move folders, you’re golden, and for those still intimidated David offers 30-day personalized support to all purchasers of the eBook. And while the methods outlined therein are geared toward iTunes and iPod users, one can certainly use any preferred combination of player and management software.

David’s process involves three basic steps: 1) ripping the original CDs as high-quality files and importing these into a designated holding directory, 2) editing the filenames and folders as needed, and 3) moving the finished archive into iTunes. While Step 1 will require (free) external software, there is in this Third Edition an iTunes-only workflow which can be performed entirely “in house.” While the latter option, even at 320kBit/s, will not give you quite the same quality, it will save a step or two. As someone who has ripped all of his CDs over the years for archiving purposes, I found this method to be the most applicable.

One cannot simply follow my summation above, however, and expect stellar results. The key is in David’s well-thought-out subtleties and ease of explanation. David has clearly spent countless hours refining his process and the eBook is an ideal tool for those whose audio collections seem to grow, like mine, of their own accord. He walks you through the steps of working with the appropriate third-party software, getting the most out of your tagging and folder options, and working with either pre-existing or to-be-ripped archives.

I feel obligated to reiterate his advice about backing up everything before attempting such a feat of organization. This is a tedious and time-consuming process that, in the rare instance of a skipped step or two, can backfire, but if followed to the letter the results will be more than worth the effort.

You may purchase a copy of David’s eBook here for $5.95.