Listening to the AACM and Its Ongoing Impact

(A shorter version of this review was originally published on I Care If You Listen on July 20, 2017.)

A Review of Bells for the South Side


Roscoe Mitchell. Bells for the South Side. September 2015. ECM 5711952, 2017. CD.

The album Bells for the South Side, released by ECM Records on June 16, 2017, features multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser Roscoe Mitchell’s four trio ensembles, which are presented individually and combined in new and fresh ways. This album documents two concerts that he gave in September 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago as part of an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)—a collective of African-American musicians founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1965.

A founding member of the AACM, Mitchell later created the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the AACM’s flagship ensemble for many years. As George E. Lewis writes in his 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, the AACM promoted individual development within the context of the community. For instance, Muhal Richard Abrams encouraged AACM members to develop their own compositional style and not to imitate others.

These same principles of cooperation and individuality are also highlighted on Bells for the South Side. The musicians of each trio contribute their own unique sound, and together they create an environment that is supportive of individual expression.

The album begins with “Spatial Aspects of the Sound,” a composition by Mitchell for two pianos, percussion, and piccolo. We hear warm, resonating chords on the two pianos and tubular bells, highlighting the sound of the bell—a theme that Mitchell frequently returns to throughout the album. Midway through the piece, the pianists pluck and strum the strings inside the piano, and the percussionist Kikanju Baku comes on stage and dances with sleigh bells and ankle bells (see the album preview above.) Baku’s dance is a reference to the late Malachi Favors, who often danced during Art Ensemble of Chicago performances. The piece ends with Mitchell performing a whole-tone passage on the piccolo.

The next piece’s title, “Panoply,” refers to a 1967 painting by Mitchell. Many of the AACM members engaged with other art forms in addition to music. Mitchell’s 1967 painting is densely structured with vibrant colors, characteristics that are in turn reflected in the musical composition. The piece starts with an ostinato passage on the xylophone, cymbal, and snare drum—a passage that returns throughout the work. This is the album’s first composition to use all of the musicians from the separate trios. However, the musicians don’t all play at once, but rather are divided into smaller groups. 


Roscoe Mitchell, “Panoply,” 1967, Acrylic on canvas, Collection of Kay Michener.

“Prelude to a Rose” features the album’s first trio: Mitchell, composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, and trumpeter Hugh Ragin. This work is like a theatrical scenario. Following a slow, somber chorus, the performers engage in a humorous three-way conversation via their instruments. I’m reminded of Paul Steinbeck’s discussion of the intermedia elements incorporated by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Inspired by the happenings and performance art of the 1950s and 1960s, Art Ensemble performances included poetry, costumes, masks, face paint, gesture, and movement.

The second trio—consisting of Mitchell, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and percussionist Kikanju Baku—performs “Dancing in the Canyon,” which begins softly with chimes and Taborn’s mysterious electronics. When Mitchell enters midway through the piece, he leads the ensemble in an intensity structure—a massive buildup to a dense texture in which the musicians simultaneously play contrasting material.

“Ep 7849” is an exercise in transcending genre boundaries. At first, we hear a low brass instrument with thunderous bass drum. Then there is a playful electronic dance music section, followed by some hard rock with heavily distorted electric guitar. We couldn’t be any further from the initial style of “Spatial Aspects of the Sound.” Yet even at this moment, we can hear bells softly chiming in the distance.

Since the previous piece was an elaborate, through-composed transition, the title track “Bells for the South Side” feels like an arrival. It showcases what I take to be the specific bells alluded to in the title—Roscoe Mitchell’s percussion cage and the percussion set-ups of Don Moye and Malachi Favors. (See this video on Mitchell’s percussion cage.) I interpret the piece as a tribute to the Art Ensemble of Chicago—in particular, Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors, who weren’t alive to celebrate the AACM’s anniversary—and to the community of the South Side of Chicago, which played an active role in the AACM from the beginning. The musical work, which has a ternary form, begins with a short introduction of sleigh bells, an alarm, and chimes. A siren (Varèse?) signals the onset of the first section—a beautiful, majestic theme played on the piccolo trumpet. The contrasting second section has a low, ominous element recalling the previous piece (“Ep 7849”). The final section brings back the piccolo trumpet, though its melodic material is now transformed.

The third trio features two artists with whom Mitchell has collaborated for many years: percussionist Tani Tabbal and bassist Jaribu Shahid. They perform “Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and the Final Hand,” which highlights the bass and drums—normally associated with the rhythm section—as melodic instruments. In the first section, Mitchell improvises over Shahid’s melodic line, followed by a virtuosic drum solo by Tani Tabbal. The last section returns to the initial melodic material, this time with all three musicians.

The fourth trio includes two of Mitchell’s colleagues at Mills College: multi-instrumentalist and composer James Fei and percussionist William Winant. “Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks” begins and ends with an imitative texture. Between these sections, Mitchell is featured as a master of extended techniques (microtones, multiphonics, circular breathing) against a colorful background provided by Fei on electronics and Winant on gongs and woodblock.

In the final piece, “Red Moon in the Sky,” all of the musicians gather to perform an extended intensity structure, like an expanded version of the one found in “Dancing in the Canyon.” The album ends with “Odwalla,” a classic of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

I highly recommend this recording. It demonstrates the same sort of mobility of genre that the AACM was able to accomplish. While celebrating the AACM’s rich history, it also points to the future. Moreover, the album draws attention to music’s potentially transformative role within the community. This is an important lesson for today’s listeners.

Further Reading

Lewis, George E. A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Steinbeck, Paul. Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. [Link to Paul Steinbeck’s writings on the Art Ensemble of Chicago]

Further Listening

Art Ensemble of Chicago. A Jackson in Your House. Sunspots SPOT 543. CD. Original release, BYG/Actuel 529302, 1969. LP.

 Art Ensemble of Chicago. Live at Mandel Hall. Delmark DE 432. CD. Original release, Delmark DS-432/433, 1972. LP.

Mitchell, Roscoe. Roscoe Mitchell Sextet: Sound. Delmark DE-408, 1996. CD. Original release, Delmark DL-408, 1966. LP.

A Musical Adventure Novel Set in the Mountains: Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony”

CD Review of Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (Kent Nagano, Göteborgs Symfoniker)


Kent Nagano. Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie. Recorded with the Göteborgs Symfoniker, November 2014. Farao Classics B 108091, 2016. CD.

The Alps are only a short train ride from Munich, where Richard Strauss was born and lived for a great part of his life. In fact, as I recall from living there, you can see them from the window on a clear day, hovering along the horizon just out of reach. The experience of living in close proximity to the Alps – Strauss later settled in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, at the foot of the Zugspitze – strongly affected his music and his view of life in general. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Alpensinfonie, op. 64, composed between 1911 and 1915. This excellent new CD by Kent Nagano and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra keeps listeners on the edge of their seats as they follow the protagonist in his perilous journey in the Alps.

The Alps and mountains in general have long fascinated German writers and artists: Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell; the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich; Nietzsche; Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain; and, Bergfilme, a film genre about mountains (Ireton and Schaumann 2012). As the musicologist Christopher Morris states, Strauss’s conception of the mountains was mediated by ideas of his time period, which saw the birth of the nature-oriented German Youth Movement and the proliferation of numerous alpine societies (Morris 2012). Equally influential for Strauss were Nietzsche’s writings, as demonstrated by the 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. The initial title for Op. 64 was “The Antichrist. An Alpine Symphony,” alluding to a passage in Nietzsche’s Der Antichrist: “One must be skilled in living on mountains, seeing the wretched ephemeral babble of politics and national self-seeking beneath oneself.” Yet we must be careful not to reduce Strauss’s work to Nietzsche’s philosophy. Strauss was also responding to other musical works that depict nature, in particular Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (“Scène aux champs”), and Mahler’s First Symphony. Finally, Strauss provided a musical counterpart to the alpine novel, a type of adventure novel set in the Alps that was popularized by such authors as Ludwig Ganghofer and Ludwig Thoma. Like Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, these alpine novels often featured a life-and-death struggle with nature resulting in self-enlightenment (Morris 2012).


Part of the Bavarian Alps, the Zugspitze is the largest mountain in Germany (9,718 ft). Richard Strauss had a villa in Garmisch, which is at the foot of the Zugspitze.

This recording was not my first time listening to Kent Nagano conduct Strauss. Nagano was the General Music Director at the Bayerische Staatsoper when I lived in Munich in 2006/2007, and I heard him conduct nearly every week. Nagano has a deep understanding of Strauss’s operas and orchestral works, a type of mastery that can only be achieved through many years of experience conducting Strauss’s works. Nagano presents Strauss as a modernist composer that uses an enormous orchestra to create a highly differentiated sound palette. Nagano keeps the rich orchestral textures transparent enough so that one can always hear the contrapuntal treatment of the melodic voices and Strauss’s ability to create seamless transitions between contrasting episodes.

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (GSO) has long been one of my favorite ensembles. I grew up listening to their superb recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I was nevertheless surprised to read about their long tradition of performing Strauss’s works. The GSO performed Don Juan in their 1905-1906 inaugural season. In 1917, Strauss visited Sweden and praised the city of Gothenburg for its outstanding musical culture. Over the years, the GSO has performed Strauss’s works many times. In order to celebrate the composer’s 150th anniversary in 2014, Nagano and the GSO have been performing and recording all of Strauss’s major orchestral works (many of these performances are available on the GSO’s Vimeo channel.)

(A short promotional video about this CD)

In my opinion, the best part of this recording is “On the Summit” (Auf dem Gipfel), at which point the protagonist has reached his goal (listen to a preview on iTunes.) The Zarathustra motif sounds above a bed of shimmering tremolo strings. This is followed by a reference to the oboe melody from the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (“Scène aux champs”), when the artist is in the countryside and hears two shepherds piping a mountain tune. The Zarathustra motif returns at 1:51 accompanied by a brass choir and percussion. A soaring string melody then appears above pedal tones in the low brass and strings (2:19). The soaring melody is juxtaposed with a countermelody in the brass. This movement of Strauss’s work is a moment of extreme elation after having reached the mountain’s summit. The episode’s majestic major tonality contrasts the extreme chromaticism of the other movements, lending it a feeling of arrival and stability.

According to the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature, the adventure novel is a genre in which the reader follows a protagonist through a series of episodes involving extreme danger and that are overcome through both cunning and hard work. In the Alpine Symphony, we encounter a similar narrative of a protagonist who aspires to ascend a mountain. Like the adventure novel, Strauss’s tone poem is made up of a number of episodes, each one propelling the action forward. Another key feature of the adventure novel is the attention to realistic details, which meant incorporating the latest scientific research and information from real expeditions. We find a corresponding realism in Strauss’s work, more specifically his ability to conjure up the illusion of a real, life-like sonic landscape. For example, we hear such things as a distant hunting party (Der Anstieg), bird calls, a babbling brook, a waterfall, and the intense winds of an alpine storm (Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg). In conclusion, by highlighting the music’s exciting episodic nature and its programmatic details, Nagano and the GSO present the Alpine Symphony as a type of musical adventure novel. I highly recommend this recording.

Further Reading:

Ireton, Sean and Caroline Schaumann. “Introduction: The Meaning of Mountains: Geology, History, Culture.” In Heights of Reflection: Mountains in the German Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-First Century, edited by Sean Ireton and Caroline Schaumann, 1-19. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012. [Link to book]

Morris, Christopher. Modernism and the Cult of Mountains: Music, Opera, Cinema. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Pub., 2012. [Link to book]

Youmans, Charles Dowell. Richard Strauss’s Orchestral Music and the German Intellectual Tradition: The Philosophical Roots of Musical Modernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. [Link to book]

An Homage and Farewell to Wagner: Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder

CD Review of Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder (Markus Stenz, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Brandon Jovanovich, Barbara Haveman)


Markus Stenz, Brandon Jovanovich, Barbara Haveman. Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder. Recorded with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, June 2014. Hyperion CDA 68081, 2015. CD.

The Gurre-Lieder are simultaneously a tribute to Richard Wagner and a farewell to a tradition that Arnold Schoenberg wanted to leave behind. In no other work by Schoenberg is the examination of Wagner’s legacy so evident. Markus Stenz, who manages to make the Gürzenich Orchestra play with the virtuosity of a chamber-ensemble, ultimately highlights the forward-looking aspects of Schoenberg’s music, especially the profound attention to tone-color and the rhythmic sophistication.

A cantata for five soloists, a narrator, three male choruses, a mixed chorus, and an orchestra of 150 musicians, Gurre-Lieder is a work that brings the Wagnerian orchestra to the concert stage. Also Wagnerian is the work’s enormous temporal scale: it lasts one hour and forty-five minutes. Schoenberg’s work is based on a text by the nineteenth-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen, who draws on legends surrounding Waldemar IV, king of Denmark from 1340 to 1375. Waldemar falls in love with a young woman, Tove, who is in turn killed by Queen Helvig. According to the legend, Waldemar – who curses God for Tove’s death – is condemned to take part in a wild hunt accompanied by the undead until the end of time. Drawing on medieval myth and legend, Jacobsen’s text shares many features in common with Wagner’s operas – forbidden love, a fatal curse, and a cosmic war between humans and gods. Schoenberg’s work is divided into three parts: the first focuses on the relationship between Waldemar and Tove; the second on Waldemar cursing God; the third on Waldemar’s wild hunt.


Asgårdsreien (The Wild Hunt) by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1872)

Schoenberg began working on the Gurre-Lieder in 1900 but broke off composition in 1903, fearing that he would not have the financial resources to perform such an enormous work. According to the musicologist Brian G. Campbell, the work was more or less finished in 1903 except for the orchestration of Part III (Cambell 2000). A performance of Part I in 1910 led Schoenberg to finish the orchestration between 1910 and 1911. In keeping with the compositional break, Part III features a different orchestration style: Schoenberg now sharply juxtaposes contrasting timbres, as opposed to the smooth transitions found in his earlier style.

This was my first time hearing the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. I was surprised to read that the orchestra has been in existence since 1827, and that it premiered such works as Brahms’s Double Concerto, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote, and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Though no longer in Cologne, Markus Stenz served as Chief Conductor between 2003 to 2014 and is currently Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Brandon Jovanovich, who sings the part of Waldemar, is a native of Montana and has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera, the Wiener Staatsoper, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Equally accomplished, Barbara Haveman (Tove) is a Dutch soprano who specializes in German Lieder in addition to opera. Other singers on this album include Thomas Bauer, Gerhard Siegel, and Claudia Mahnke; and, the narrator is Johannes Martin Kränzle.

My favorite part of this CD is the Prelude and Waldemar’s first song (“Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung). Schoenberg’s model for the Prelude is the beginning of Das Rheingold, except that Schoenberg is depicting a sunset – not the morning, as Wagner does (Cherlin 2007). Like the Prelude of Rheingold, Schoenberg’s opening layers multiple rhythmic figures over a static harmony. As a result, the music suggests flickering light, the imagery of which is further enhanced by the scoring (piccolo, flute, strings, harp) and the syncopation. Stenz’s sensitivity to color is also apparent in Waldemar’s first song, effectively balancing the heroic tenor voice of Brandon Jovanovich. Jovanovich and Barbara Haveman, whose voices are ideally paired on this recording, are both traditional Wagner singers – they have large voices that can be heard over the orchestra and carry well in the opera house – which highlights the Wagnerian nature of Schoenberg’s early vocal writing. Jovanovich and Haveman are the perfect choice for Gurre-Lieder, for it wasn’t until Pierrot lunaire (1912) that Schoenberg really began experimenting with a new vocal style.

In conclusion, Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder has both progressive and traditional aspects, and this recording brings out both sides. In addition to the vocal writing, Schoenberg adopts Wagner’s idea of “endless melody,” creating continuity and larger trajectories by deferring strong cadences and avoiding regular phrasing. Schoenberg also makes use of leitmotivs (recurring motives associated with a person, place, or thing) but not in the structural way that we find in Wagner’s later works. What really makes Gurre-Lieder forward-looking is its orchestration, especially in Part III. Here we find techniques that Schoenberg had developed in the Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 (1909): frequent, abrupt changes of instrumentation, extended techniques, and the solo treatment of instruments in the context of a large orchestra. Ultimately, it is the forward-looking aspects of Gurre-Lieder that are highlighted in this CD through the supreme artistry of Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich Orchestra. I highly recommend this recording.

Further Reading

Campbell, Brian G. “Gurrelieder and the Fall of the Gods: Schoenberg’s Struggle with the Legacy of Wagner.” In Schoenberg and Words: The Modernist Years, edited by Charlotte M. Cross and Russell A. Berman, 31-64. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000. [Link to book]

Cherlin, Michael. “A Passing of Worlds: Gurrelieder as Schoenberg’s Reluctant Farewell to the Nineteenth Century.” In Schoenberg’s Musical Imagination, 20-43. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. [Link to book]

A Rhine Journey in the Company of Rhine Maidens

CD Review of Rheinmädchen (Raphaël Pichon, Ensemble Pygmalion)


Raphaël Pichon. Rheinmädchen. Recorded with the Ensemble Pygmalion, July 2015. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902239, 2016. CD.

This excellent new CD, performed by Raphaël Pichon and the Ensemble Pygmalion, takes us on a journey along the Rhine by exploring depictions of Rhine Maidens in the works of Wagner, Brahms, Schumann, and Schubert. In doing so, Pichon shows that Wagner’s portrayal of the Rhine Maidens was part of a longer tradition that Wagner shared in common with other German Romantic composers.

The Rhine is the second-largest river in Central and Western Europe, and begins in the Swiss Alps and flows for about 865 miles (1,390 km) before entering the North Sea. Throughout its history, the Rhine has served as a means of commercial transportation, a source of electricity, a political and cultural boundary, and a site for tourism. During the nineteenth century, in response to the threat of French invasion, the Rhine acted as a powerful symbol of cultural and political identity for early German nationalists, most famously in Max Schneckenburger’s 1840 poem “Die Wacht am Rhein” (The Watch on the Rhine). Around the same time, the figure of the Rhine Maiden became increasingly popular in German Romantic literature and music. According to the Rhine Maiden legend, a young fisherman’s daughter, betrayed by her lover, was transformed into a mermaid who sits on the banks of the Rhine and sings to the passing sailors, luring them to their death. As the musicologist Annegret Fauser explains, the Rhine Maiden was interpreted as an embodiment of the Rhine Valley and the German landscape in general, protecting the Rhine from foreign invasion (Fauser 2006).


The Rhine. View of the Loreley Rock and the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.

I had not heard of Raphaël Pichon and the Ensemble Pygmalion before listening to this recording. Born and trained in France, the 32-year-old Pichon began his career as a countertenor, singing with such greats as Jordi Savall, Gustav Leonhardt, and Ton Koopman. Simultaneously a conductor, Pichon founded the chamber choir OTrente and a period-instrument orchestra. In 2005, he founded the Ensemble Pygmalion, a choir and orchestra of young musicians specializing in repertoire for period instruments. Since that time, he and his ensemble have performed around the globe and produced award-winning recordings of Bach and Rameau. The current album (Rheinmädchen) is the first part of a trilogy exploring the role of canon in 19th- and 20th-century German music. (A canon is a strict type of counterpoint in which a melody in one voice is imitated note for note in another voice.) The works featured on this album are canons for female voices, at times also accompanied by harp and natural horn. In contrast to the modern-day valve horn, the natural horn has a softer and warmer sound. (Listen to this clip of Anneke Scott playing Siegfried’s horn call on a natural horn.)


“The Rhine’s fair children, / Bewailing their lost gold, weep.” Illustration of the Rhine Maidens by Arthur Rackham (1910)

What I find most exciting about this album is the imaginative programming. Each work presents the figure of the Rhine Maiden in a slightly different way. Pichon divides the CD into six parts: Morpheus’ Daughters, Mermaids, Serenade, Mourning Women, Love’s Grief, and Rhine Maidens. The CD liner notes quote the famous passage from Wagner’s My Life describing how Rheingold’s prelude came to him in a dream of sinking in water. In other words, the Rhine Maidens are the “daughters” of his dream, and the rest of the works included in this section are about sleeping and dreaming – for example, Schumann’s “Wiegenlied” (Lullaby), op. 78/4. The second section (“Mermaids”) begins with Schumann’s setting of a text by Eichendorff about a mermaid whose singing causes sailors to capsize their boats and drown. This depiction of the mermaid as enchantress is then juxtaposed with the Christian imagery of death and salvation in Schubert’s setting of Psalm 23 (“The Lord Is My Shephard”). The final section combines the Rhine Maidens’ song from Götterdämmerung (“Frau Sonne sendet lichte Strahlen”) with Brahms’s Four Songs, op. 17. Not only does Brahms use a similar scoring – female voices, harp, and horn – his songs recapitulate many of the same themes found in Wagner: lamentation, longing for the past, and hope for salvation.

(requires a free subscription to Spotify)

My favorite work on this CD is the Prelude to Rheingold, here arranged for twenty-four female voices, harp, four horns, and two contrabasses. The form of the Prelude is theme and variations, the theme being a canon in eight parts (0:35, see above). From this theme are derived a number of ostinatos (repeating melodic and rhythmic figures), each longer than the previous. With each successive variation, Wagner adds additional layers of ostinatos, superimposing them on each other (see Warren Darcy’s outstanding 1989 article on the Rheingold Prelude.) The rippling string lines of the original are performed here by the harp, an instrument commonly associated with the Rhine Maiden. The woodwind and upper brass parts are sung by a female chorus, suggesting that the Rhine Maidens embody the river itself. That is, the landscape and the Rhine Maidens are one and the same. As the dynamics get louder and the texture becomes increasingly dense, the listener experiences a strong feeling of disorientation and intoxication (3:43), akin to the effect of Rhine Maidens on a sailor.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this imaginative concept album. Like the sailors described in the Rhine Maiden legend, I was completely enchanted by this magical music. I am very much looking forward to the future parts of this trilogy.

Further Reading:

Darcy, Warren. “Creatio ex nihilo: The Genesis, Structure, and Meaning of the Rheingold Prelude.” 19th-Century Music 13, no. 2 (1989): 79-100. [Link to article]

Fauser, Annegret. “Rheinsirenen: Loreley and Other Rhine Maidens.” In Music of the Sirens, edited by Linda Phyllis Austern and Inna Naroditskaya, 250-272. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. [Link to chapter]

Sound Souvenirs of Scotland and Italy: Mendelssohn’s Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4

CD Review of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 (Pablo Heras-Casado, Freiburger Barockorchester)


Pablo Heras-Casado. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. Recorded with the Freiburger Barockorchester, March 2015. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902228, 2016. CD.

The term “sound souvenir” draws attention to the reciprocal relationship between music and memory – how music can contribute to the recollection of past events and how memory shapes the experience of music in the present (Bijsterveld and Van Dijck 2011). The concept of the sound souvenir is especially helpful for understanding Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphonies No. 3 and 4, both of which began as sketches during his Grand Tour of 1829-1832 but that were not finished until some time later. Through his sketches, Mendelssohn was able to recall his vivid experiences in Scotland and Italy. Yet as time went on and his memories changed, Mendelssohn developed the music in new and unexpected ways. When he later published the two symphonies in 1842 and 1833, respectively, he avoided using descriptive epithets for them, instead stressing their non-programmatic nature. Be that as it may, Pablo Heras-Casado’s marvelous new recording with the Freiburger Barockorchester highlights the energy and excitement of Mendelssohn’s initial impressions of Scotland and Italy, minimizing the composer and listener’s distance from these experiences. Heras-Casado breathes new life into these sound souvenirs.

Born in Spain in 1977, Pablo Heras-Casado became the principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in 2011, where he continues to serve. I first saw Heras-Casado at his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013, when he conducted Michael Mayer’s production of Rigoletto. I was particularly impressed with his skills as an opera conductor – his ability to give a highly energetic and focused reading of Verdi’s score without detracting attention away from the singers. He has also made a name for himself in the recording world, especially with his award-winning albums of Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Heras-Casado has been collaborating with the period-instrument Freiburger Barockorchester since 2011. Though the ensemble is primarily known for its outstanding performances of works from the Baroque and Classical eras, it is now embarking on a new project exploring the German Romantic repertoire (Die neue Romantik – The 19th Century Collection).

(requires a subscription to Spotify)

My favorite part of this CD is the last movement of the “Italian” Fourth Symphony. Mendelssohn refers to the movement as a saltarello, which is a fast leaping dance in a triple meter. Mendelssohn’s saltarello is in a quadruple meter but features a great deal of triplet motion. The saltarello dance is the closest thing to being folk material in this symphony, but even here Mendelssohn is more interested in conveying the general atmosphere of the Italian countryside than depicting it in its actuality. The dance has a frantic, obsessive quality that makes it sound more like a memory of some past experience that is ruthlessly pursuing the composer’s imagination. After a fortissimo jolt, the music dies down to pianissimo, and the ethereal woodwind scoring suggests that the memory is still distant in the composer’s mind. The music then grows in intensity until the composer has no choice but to succumb to the full effects of the memory (0:35). At 1:02, the composer experiences some relief and returns to thinking about the present moment, but the obsessive dance music begins to intrude again. During the development-like section (2:04), the composer paces around the room, as thoughts about the past and present collide without a clear outcome. At the end, just when the past seems to be fading, the dance tune returns one last time before the music reaches an ominous cadence. For Mendelssohn and Heras-Casado, this sound souvenir is not some harmless memory of the past but rather threatens to overcome the composer and listener in the present.

Further Reading

Bijsterveld, Karin and José van Dijck. “Introduction.” In Sound Souvenirs: Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices, edited by Karin Bijsterveld and José van Dijck, 11-24. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009.

Toward an Ecological Understanding of Music: The Colorado (Music from the Motion Picture)

CD Review of The Colorado (Music from the Motion Picture)


Roomful of Teeth, Glenn Kotche, and Jeffrey Zeigler. The Colorado (Music from the Motion Picture). Recorded 2016. VIA Records, 2016. CD.

The “ecology of music,” a concept central to the American composer John Luther Adams, refers to music that incorporates sounds around us – sounds of everyday life and nature – and that contributes to our awareness of the environment and the need to protect the planet. Both understandings of ecological music are at play in this album of music from the documentary film The Colorado. The film, which received its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 18 and will appear at select theaters in the United States, is about the Colorado River’s history and its current ecological situation. The river is no longer able to reach its delta, which up until the 1950s was a thriving wetland. Directed by Murat Eyuboglu, the film is both an educational resource and a call to action to protect the river from climate change and further abuse.

Music plays a central role in this film, which was created to accompany musical works by John Luther Adams, Paola Prestini, William Brittelle, Glenn Kotche, and Shara Nova. All nine works included on the album are performed with great energy and virtuosity by Roomful of Teeth, a Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble that specializes in unconventional types of singing. (See, for example, the ensemble’s 2012 debut album Roomful of Teeth, which incorporates African pygmy yodels, Inuit throat singing, and Appalachian hymns.) Also featured on the Colorado album are the cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and the percussionist Glenn Kotche, the latter of whom also composed two of the works performed here. Each of the pieces depicts a time period of the Colorado River’s history, though not in a literal way. The second track (“A Padre, A Horse, A Telescope”) refers to the 17th-century Jesuit explorer Eusebio Francisco Kino, the third (“An Unknown Distance Yet to Run”) to the Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869, and the seventh (“El Corrido de Joe R.”) to a young track star who turns down an opportunity to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in order to take care of his sick mother.

My favorite part of the CD is the first number, Glenn Kotche’s “Beginnings” (see above). Though primarily known as the drummer of the alternative rock band Wilco, he is also an accomplished composer. Glenn Kotche and John Luther Adams have been collaborating for some time now (see this article on NewMusicBox), and the latter’s influence is evident in this composition. Like Adams, Kotche has an ecological understanding of music, in both of the ways described above. Kotche depicts a prehistoric landscape before the advent of language. The work begins with an a cappella section that has the playful, exuberant quality of a madrigal. Percussion and cello are added (1:27), and the music grows in intensity, leading up to exchanges between the cello and voice. A more rhythmic section follows (3:36) incorporating electronics. The final section (4:43) is more reflective in nature, and the music fades away until only the cello and percussion remain. Kotche’s music captures the energy and playfulness of a primordial scene in which there is no hierarchy between man and nature – the two are in balance. On Kotche’s ecological view of music, see his 2012 essay “The Thunder That Smokes,” which treats rhythm and percussion as sonic landmarks and as a way to keep the music grounded in a setting of place and time (119).

I have not yet seen the film The Colorado. But judging from the project’s early teaser clips, it is influenced by Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, which features the powerful music of Philip Glass. While Reggio’s film had a message about mankind’s destruction of nature – its title means “life out of balance” in the Hopi language – this message is even more pronounced in The Colorado. I sense that Eyuboglu’s film is shaped by John Luther Adams’s ecological view of music, which calls for environmental activism. (See Alex Ross’s excellent article on Adams in the New Yorker.) More importantly, though this message plays an important part in the film and music, the music nonetheless stands apart as an artistic vision of the joy and energy of life and nature in general. In other words, the music cannot be reduced to the political message. In conclusion, I highly recommend this CD and look forward to the future projects alluded to on the team’s website.

Schumann’s Piano Concerto: A Concerto without Piano?

CD Review of Schumann (Jan Lisiecki, Antonio Pappano, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia)


Lisiecki, Jan. Schumann. Recorded with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Antonio Pappano, September 2015. DG Deutsche Grammophon 4795327, 2016. CD.

Franz Liszt once referred to Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto as a “concerto without piano,” drawing attention to Schumann’s unconventional understanding of the concerto as a genre. Schumann – who strongly disapproved of virtuosity as an end in itself – sought to return to the roots of the concerto tradition, when the soloist and orchestra collaborated as equals. In this recording, Jan Lisiecki (pronounced lee-shetz-kee) and Antonio Pappano with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra accomplish exactly what Schumann had in mind with the idea of a concerto as a conversation between equals.

This idea of the concerto as a conversation between equals is nothing new for listeners already familiar with Antonio Pappano’s collaboration with Leif Ove Andsnes on the Rachmaninoff piano concertos (see, for example, their recording of the first movement of the Second Piano Concerto). Normally I associate the Rachmaninoff concertos with virtuosity at its most extreme – the sort that Schumann would have disapproved of – but Andsnes and Pappano manage to make the piano and orchestra equal partners. Pappano brings out the intricate melodic lines in the orchestra, and Andnes explores with great sensitivity those moments when the soloist functions as accompanist. As a result, I had very high expectations for this Schumann album. And, on the whole, I was not disappointed. Lisiecki and Pappano provide a new and fresh reading of Schumann’s works for piano and orchestra that is in keeping with the high level of Pappano’s previous collaborative projects.

This Schumann album was my first experience listening to the 21-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki, who has already released two CDs on DG. Born in Canada and of Polish ancestry, Lisiecki performed the Schumann concerto with Pappano at the BBC Proms in 2013, and subsequently toured with Pappano as an alternate pianist for Martha Argerich. Not surprisingly, one hears a bit of Argerich’s influence in his playing. Like Argerich, Lisiecki has an energetic and refined sound, and his playing shows great sensitivity to the musicians with whom he is collaborating. Lisiecki’s outstanding talent invites comparison with Daniil Trifonov, another young pianist that has already accomplished so much and promises to become one of the great artists of his generation.

My favorite part of this Schumann album is the first movement of the Piano Concerto. It best exemplifies Schumann’s idea of the concerto as a conversation between equals. The first theme initially appears in the oboe and is then taken up by the piano. Lisiecki captures the delicate, lyrical sound of the woodwinds. When the melody next moves to the first violins, the soloist becomes an accompanist, decorating the strings’ stepwise motion with rippling arpeggios. The most magical moment occurs in the middle of the movement when the piano moves to A-flat major over a pedal tone in the low strings (4:31). The melody passes from the piano to the clarinet, and for a moment the clarinet sounds as if it is an ethereal tone emanating from the piano. I am reminded of the scene in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fairy tale “The Golden Pot” when the protagonist Anselmus dozes by the river and awakens to the sound of magical snakes whispering to him from the bushes. The orchestra plays a loud, abrupt chord (5:54), and suddenly we are back in the everyday reality of life.

Along with the Piano Concerto, the album contains two lesser-known works for piano and orchestra by Schumann: the Introduction and Allegro appassionato, op. 92, and Introduction and Concert-Allegro, op. 134. This is the first time that the latter has been recorded on the DG label. There are moments of great beauty in these works, and it is a shame that they are not performed more frequently. The CD concludes with an encore number, “Träumerei” from Kinderszenen. As a whole, this album is very impressive, and I highly recommend it. Kudos to Lisiecki, Pappano, and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra for providing a fresh reading of Robert Schumann’s works for piano and orchestra.