A special eight-page section focusing on recent recordings from the US and Canada
Bates Mass Transmission. Rag of Ragnar. Sirens Cappella SF / Ragnar Bohlin Delos F DE3573 (54’ • DDD • T/t)
The works by Mason Bates that tend to draw the most attention are his orchestral scores and the 2017 opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. But the American composer has also penned a sizeable number of pieces for chamber ensembles and voices. Bates’s versatility is further revealed on this disc of superb choral works featuring the inspired Cappella SF.
In Sirens, six movements of beguiling and varied settings for a cappella chorus, Bates embraces an assortment of languages and musical styles to depict the seductive creatures of mythology and, with a passage from the New Testament, Jesus’s holy powers of persuasion. The composer’s keen imagination for colour and motion can be felt in undulating waves evoked by the choristers in an excerpt from The Odyssey. When Heine is the poet, the music reflects the German source, while a text by Pietro Aretino receives Italianate treatment and a movement in native Quechua reflects that culture.
Bates is noted for his novel employment of electronics, which are put to striking use in Mass Transmission, scored also for chorus, soloists and organ. The three movements portray the real-life tale of long-distance radio transmissions between a mother (in Holland) and daughter (in Java). Amid occasional radio static, the piece weaves a poignant narrative in which choral lines – based on historical texts – are mixed with sampled sounds and vibrant organ sonorities.
Both works could hardly have more incisive and seamless champions than Cappella SF, which Ragnar Bohlin, chorus director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, founded in 2013. (He is paid tribute here at the end in Bates’s riotous Rag of Ragnar.) Lucky is the composer whose music is brought to life by these exceptional singers. Donald Rosenberg
Makan Dream Lightlya. If we Knew the Sky. Stillb. Tender Illusions b Charles Dimmick vn bPeter Sulski va a Seth Josel elec gtr Boston Modern Orchestra Project / Gil Rose BMOP/sound F Í 1066 (61’ • DDD/DSD)
I was rather taken with Keeril Makan’s hourlong sextet Letting Time Circle Through Us
(New World, 12/17). Makan’s meditative take on composition and compositional techniques was mesmeric, and there is more of the same in the four works collected here. However, one needs to adjust one’s aural focus from work to work more acutely than with most composers’ music. I confess it took me two or three playthroughs to adjust fully. The nominal title-track, Dream Lightly (2008), is a 14-minute single-movement concerto for electric guitar in which even the tuning of the instruments represents a mechanism for moving the music forwards. There is a haunting, dreamlike quality to much of it, especially the opening and closing sections with their play of harmonics.
The longest and most complex track, If we Knew the Sky (2014), is a large-scale tone poem (to use an old-fashioned term) dominated by the sound of bells – primarily a pair of vibraphones – sounding to my innocent ear like a Far Eastern temple ritual. At first hearing it seems stuck in a series of loops over its initial cadences, but as one listens closer one realises that there is more going on beneath the surface. To be honest, I think it could have been expressed in a much shorter timeframe, but its 25-minute length is part of the point.
Both Tender Illusions (2010) and Still – a concertante piece for violin, viola and orchestra (2006) – operate with much briefer (10-minute) durations. Whereas some listeners could find If we Knew the Sky outstaying its welcome, that should not be said for the companion works. The performances sound very fine throughout, electric guitarist Seth Josel the pick of the soloists, but the real stars are the Boston Modern Orchestra Project themselves. First-rate sound, too. Guy Rickards
‘Almost All-American’ ‘21st-Century Works for Clarinet’ JM Barker … to the pale green sea of eveninga Brandon Divertimento for Woodwind Quartetb Eidson Birds of Passagec JM Stephenson Bagatelled. Clarinet Sonatad. Fantasied Christopher Nichols cl c Augustine Mercante counterten bEileen Grycky l b Jeffrey O’Donnell ob bLynn Moncilovich bn a Jennifer Margaret Barker, cdJulie Nishimura pf Albany F TROY1788 (64’ • DDD)
The Clarinettist Christopher Nichols and his musical crew (almost all from the
University of Delaware) give affectionate performances of music in a conservative vein, mostly written since 2013, which Nichols calls some of his ‘favourite individual and consortium commissioning projects’ and which have become ‘core pieces of his repertoire’.
The programme is bookended by James M Stephenson, whose ‘Liquid Melancholy’ CD with Chicago Symphony clarinettist John Bruce Yeh received a 2019 Grammy nomination. His 20-minute Sonata explores the wonderfully mellifluous things the instrument can do, with a delightful ‘Jam-Bourrée’ interlude for E flat clarinet. Stephenson’s most substantial piece is the second movement of his two-movement Fantasie, a 2015 arrangement of the composer’s original for trumpet, featuring exquisitely gentle lyrical writing for both clarinet and piano leading to a charming dialogue between the two instruments.
The most lively is Sy Brandon’s Divertimento for woodwind quartet; the composer has written for Performance Today and the Animal Planet cable channel, and his three-movement Divertimento, consisting of a ‘Frolic’, ‘Ballad’ and gramophone.co.uk
GRAMOPHONE DECEMBER 2019 I