March 15, 2019

  • Architecture and Musical Poetry

     The Poetry of Places

    Nadia Shpachenko, piano.
    Joanne Pearce Martin, piano.
    Nick Terry and Cory Hills, percussion.
    Reference 730
    Total Time:  77:32
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Pianist Nadia Shpachenko, has made a number of critically-acclaimed recordings for the Reference label (with multiple Grammy nominations).  Her programs often feature unique works, often recent commissions, that explore her interest in collaborations while also finding unique themes that help tie the albums together.  That is certainly the  case here in The Poetry of Places.  This new release features world premiere recordings of eight works by both established and emerging composers.  Each of the pieces here is inspired by specific architectural structures and locations that inform both the sound and architecture of the pieces included here.  Though mostly a solo album, the bookending works feature music for two pianos with Joanne Pearce Martin joining.

    Andrew Norman’s Frank’s House (2015) is a reference to the Santa Monica home of Frank Gehry.  As the architect wrapped up an older structure with new angles and surfaces, so does Norman explore a traditional waltz for pianos that is surrounded by “found” percussion.  In this case pieces of plywood, metal, and even a chain link fence become part of the additional sounds.  The music blends this sense of raw and rough edges with moments of explosive piano lines in rich harmonic outlines with nods to an older musical style.  On one hand, it is somewhat like a couple pianists practicing while construction goes on about them.  The final work on the album, Kolokol (2010), is a free fantasy of sorts that explores the sounds of bells.  In this case it is the Danilov Bells that hang at Harvard University’s Lowell House (these are replicas now as the originals were returned in 2008).  Nina Young's piece explores the seventeen different harmonies that result from these particular bells being rung.  The sonorities are thus transferred to the pianos with added electronics to create intriguing soundscapes.

    The central portion of the album are solo piano works.  Gehry’s IAC Building in Manhattan is the inspiration for Harold Meltzer’s Full Sail (2016) where he imagines the building as a large ship that launches off into the Atlantic.  As the piece moves toward its center, it is almost as if we are scaling the outer planes of the building itself, leaping from one segment to the next.  The music creates this aural sensation of moving upward in angular lines.  Next it is off to Ireland to explore one of the oldest known buildings constructed in the Stone Age.  The work takes its name from what is an earthen burial site known as Si an Bhru (2016).  Electronics are used to add a level of design and effects that create a rather ethereal and distant quality as the piece opens. Van Zandt creates connections through distinct thematic ideas that move cyclically through the work.  These are spread across five distinct sections that explore various aspects of the structure from the technologies that created it to ritual dances and a return to a sense of awe and wonder.  Hannah Lash’s Give Me Your Songs (2016) has an open quality that perhaps comes from the building which inspired it.  In this case it is Copland’s upstate New York where Lash resided for a while.  The unusual interior design coupled with the way the building is situated within the landcape lends itself to this interesting work that seems to move about with interesting shifts in tone and color as one might wander through the space.  A primary thematic thread has a decided Americana feel that also connects.  Both this work, and the following one, h.o.p.e. (2016) by Amy Beth Kirsten were commissioned by Shpachenko.  The latter also includes a toy piano and requires some vocalizing by the pianist.  The piece was inspired by an exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.  The music’s repetitive qualities and brighter sound have an almost Elfmanesque quality.  It is also a great brighter contrast to some of the darker pieces on the album.  James  Matheson’s three-movement work, Alone, in waters shimmering and dark (2016), moves us out into a natural setting depicting in music a house sitting in an island in the middle of a lake.  The music explores this sense of isolation, not from a point of desolation, but more to a reflection on the joy of solitude.  In the opening movement several large chords grab the ear as these blocks of sound become like musical trees whose sonorities then fade off into the distance.  From this stark opening, we move into “Capillary Waves”, a fast-paced shimmering scherzo of sorts.  The final movement, has a somewhat reflective quality.  Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh (2015) is a more extensive work that explores the National Assembly Buildings constructed there by architect Louis Kahn.  The piece evokes the city itself and in four following segments moves to depict the different buildings and their locale, as well as their construction and use.  The piece has tonal centers that help define each of these areas while shifting through them with music that tends to maintain an expanded harmonic style.  It proves to be a rather fascinating work.

    The Poetry of Places is a truly fascinating collection of original music for piano that demonstrates a great variety of approaches.  The thematic thread that runs through the album helps create a secondary connection to the music and invites the listener in on a journey through these different spaces.  Shpachenko’s technical virtuosity is on display throughout here.  She is very adept at making the requisite shifts in tone that this music demands with some rather beautiful lyrical playing that is equally gorgeous in the midst of some of the more visceral pieces.  The Reference engineers have captured this in their typical stunning sound.  The accompanying booklet is another great asset with pictures of each location and information about the conception of each work.  Certainly this is an important album for any music lovers interested in modern piano literature.