December 3, 2021
Time for a little quick highlight of some new digital-only releases now available for streaming and download from Navona.
Those looking for a little bit of contemporary orchestral music from new voices working in this medium will want to locate Woven in Time (Navona 6369). This eclectic mini-concert of sorts features music from five different composers. A new clarinet concerto by Richard E. Brown opens this collection. It is a newer revision of one of his first works and has a decidedly modern sensibility with a dense atonal opening movement; a more lyrical and troubled slow movement; and a more energetic and intense finale. The opening movement of Scott Brickman's Symphony No. 5 tantalizes with what the whole arc of the work might be. It is filled with folkish dances and melodic hints that come from Latvian culture. That translates a bit to unusual rhythmic ideas and interesting orchestral colors and syncopations. A prominent oboe solo graces Marilyn Bliss's Veils, a more abstract and intense orchestral miniature that shifts ideas and lines through subtle shades and sound colors. A portion of Jay Anthony Gach's Gangsta Noir is a rather delightful essay on 1940's film music styles making it a bit more accessible to modern listeners. Joseph T. Spaniola's Thomas Jefferson: Life Lines is a multi-movement work for narration and orchestra featuring texts of Jefferson's letters. The work is not presented in its entirety (just 3 of the 5 movements) and is in that long line of Americana scores with narration that build on a tradition set by Copland. This work is a sort of modernization of that with a touch of Schwantner perhaps. Overall an interesting collection of new music.
Shifting to a few chamber music releases brings us some equally unique music as well. First is a recital of works for violin solo featuring Chi Young Song (Navona 6387). The release features the complete work for solo violin by two composers of Korean heritage: Earl Kim (1920-1998) and Isang Yun (1917-1995). Kim's 12 Caprices (1980) were written for Itzhak Perlman. The opening caprice is a statement of the tone row which forms the basis for Kim's further exploration around its resulting row matrix. The music can be rather intense, even so, Kim's harmonic approaches tend to move toward flirtations with pantonality that are not as harsh as some 12-tone music can be as a result. There are three pieces here by Yun. His Konigliches Theme (1976) is a set of theme and variations on a tune form Bach's Musical Offering. His music is within the dodecaphonic approach but certain ornamentations and techniques reference Korean musical gestures. Li-Na im Garten (1984) is a far more approachable collection of 5 somewhat whimsical pieces. Written for his granddaughter, the different movements are musical snapshots of interactions between various animals she encounters on this little musical journey. The final work, Kontraste (1987) further expands upon Yun's Korean roots but now adds a spiritual dimension with musical depictions of Taoist philosophy. These are committed performances captured in a close, intimate acoustic.
In Division of Memory (Navona 6373), cellist Thomas Mesa presents a collection of five new works for the instrument by different musical voices. There are three works for solo cello beginning with Lydia Jane Pugh's Carolina's Jig (ca. 2015) which uses percussive sounds and fiddle techniques for a light-hearted introduction to this collection. A three-movement suite by Ben Yee-Paulson has some additional interesting techniques that explore harmonics in the first movement, octatonic scale writing in the fun central movement, and an exciting, more virtuosic finale. Elizabeth Start's Echoes in Life explores the development of musical lines with additional fragmentation and performance techniques that at times have a heartbeat-like reference. Pianist Yoon Lee joins Mesa for the other two pieces. George Holloway's Novella (Chapter One) was the composer's attempt to create a dramatic, narrative musical work from a true story he had written out. This lends the work a slowly evolving quality that has a rhapsodic quality as the musical narrative unfolds. Jonathan Chenette's Elegy and Affirmation is a blend of musical references, Asian bowing techniques, and an Auden poem that all are blended to inform this work hoping to provide healing and hope.
Finally, Trio Casals returns for a release of new music for mostly piano trio (A Grand Journey, Navona 6367). The first work is by the group's cellist Ovidiu Marinescu. The Journey is a three-movement piece that is takes inspiration from Greco-Roman mythology (though the title of the work and the subtitle of the first movement suggest Joseph Campbell's hero journey essays). After that sonata-form movement, the central movement creates the effect of time passing with pizzicato against the slow progression of musical ideas that evolves into a lyrical idea. The final movement is a somewhat playful scherzo with glissandi and other unusual sounds that sometimes diverge into folk music gestures and melodic quotations. A variety of musical references are also tossed in to this rather engaging trio. Two trios by Richard E. Brown present different musical aesthetics. The first trio uses Korean folk songs that form the basis of the musical material across the three movements. Brown does a bit of further experimentation by the musical forms he attaches to his source material. A Baroque chaconne opens the work in a unique take on theme and variations. This is followed by scherzo with two contrasting folk songs, the second being combined in the finale of the movement. The final movement is a fugue on another folk song. All of this is rather interesting to hear as Brown takes these somewhat tonal melodic ideas and transforms them with his own harmonic language and melodic technique. Brown's quotation technique shifts to English music and more specifically to the third symphony of Ralph Vaughan-Williams in the second trio here bearing the subtitle "Pastoral". Unlike the structure of the first trio, this one tends to have a more stream of conscious feel, not unlike the work it is inspired by. Again, it is more the motivic ideas that Brown is "borrowing" here to recreate a unique work that pays homage to the earlier composer. The quite conclusion is a reminder of that earlier work in this more reflective trio. The trio's pianist Anna Kislitsyna gets to shine in the four-movement Caucasus Sonata by Mark G. Simon. The music has a modern harmonic approach that puts the soloist through their paces with often quite rapid passagework and virtuosic demands. The scherzo has a sort of Bernstein-like playfulness and is a bit more accessible which is a nice contrast to the intense opening movement. This is even more so in the gorgeous "Romance" with its yearning musical theme. The final movement is a bit relentless in its energy leaving no real moment to catch one's breath. At almost a half-hour in length, this is a fairly significant new work in this genre and makes for a thrilling conclusion to the album.