Northwest postclassical CDs
by Brett Campbell
David Ogden Stiers, Nina Flyer, Chie Nagatani: The Story of Ferdinand / Carnival of the Animals / Mother Goose (North Pacific)
Bay Area composer Mark Fish composed the appropriately colorful, playful score for Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand, and arranged the 14 musico-zoological portraits in Camille Saint Saëns’ 1886 children’s classic for piano and cello. Even with a moment of Groucho shtick more appropriate to one of his former co-stars, Alan Alda, the gravitas of über-dignified actor/conductor/Oregon coast resident Stiers — the calm, soothing voice of so many PBS documentaries and of course a certain popular TV show — brings out versifier Ogden Nash’s silliness even more. The poems are printed on 4.5” glossy discs, each backed by a commissioned illustration, suitable for a simple memorization parlor game. In the short intros to Fish’s arrangement of Maurice Ravel’s exquisitely beautiful Mother Goose, Stiers sounds like dad reading a bedtime story. The disc ends with an unannounced bonus track that makes an appropriate lullaby. It’s an ideal classical music holiday package for kids or adults.
Philip Glass/Portland Opera: Orphée (Orange Mountain)
The ancient proto-tragedy of a singer venturing into the underworld to recover his dead wife must have held special significance to composer Philip Glass when he wrote it in 1991, the year his own 39-year-old wife died of cancer only weeks after it was diagnosed. Glass chose a modern version of myth used by the great filmmaker Jean Cocteau, set in post-WWII Paris, which enchanted Glass when he visited as a student. At times, Orphée evokes French cabaret elements reminiscent of the 20th century Les Six composers like Darius Milhaud, filtered through Glass’ post minimalist lens. Glass’ choice of Portland Opera for the first recording is a tribute to the company’s striking 2010 production. Despite some daunting high-register passages and inevitable slack moments in Glass’ two-disc score, its performers (particularly soprano Lisa Saffer as the dark Princess of the Underworld) acquit themselves honorably.
Lou Harrison: Scenes from Cavafy; Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan; A Soedjatmoko Set. Gamelan Pacifica (New World)
This disc of three 1980s works, authoritatively performed by the ensemble based at Seattle’s Cornish College, contains some of the most ambitious of the late Portland-born grand old maverick’s many compositions for the orchestra of Javanese percussion instruments. Director Jarrad Powell has known and performed Harrison’s music for years, and the recording displays his sensitivity to matters of tuning and interpretation that the composer, who died in 2003, would have appreciated.
You can almost smell the incense in Harrison’s seductive setting of his own paraphrases of the early 20th century Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s evocative poetry, drenched in history and eroticism, two of the grand old musical maverick’s favorite subjects. The veteran new music tenor and Harrison interpreter John Duykers shines in a fairly traditional Javanese structure that features male chorus and some beguiling suling (bamboo flute) passages.
Commissioned to commemorate the death of a pacifist, environmentalist and former Indonesian ambassador to the US, Soedjatmoko Set debuted at Lewis & Clark College by Portland’s Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan in 1990. Harrison chose a text from the Ramayana often used in Javanese shadow puppet plays. In the lustrous second movement, “Isna’s Song,” the goddess Sinta finds refuge from injustice and travail in the wonders of nature — a parallel to Harrison’s return from an unpleasant decade in New York to the West Coast’s pastoral pleasures. Radiant vocalist Jessika Kenney’s extensive training in Javanese pesindhen singing makes her an ideal interpreter for Harrison’s floating, ethereal paean to mother earth.
The piano concerto is one of two Harrison wrote in the mid-1980s (the other for Western orchestra and premiered by Keith Jarrett) and both rank among the greatest ever composed by an American, though they’re too rarely performed because the piano must be retuned out of the compromised standard equal temperament. From the dramatic, stentorian opening chords through the delicately haunting second movement to the outpouring of sheer joy in the exuberant final movement’s glorious efflorescence of memorable melody, you can feel Harrison’s delight in the pure tone intervals that tart tuning makes possible. Soloist Adrienne Varner rightly makes the piano the lead dancer in a cooperative troupe rather than the Romantic vision of the heroic soloist battling the orchestra, suiting both traditional Javanese practice and Harrison’s own ideas of music as the practice of a joyful community.
Cappella Romana: Peter Michaelides: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
Some years ago, Alexander Lingas, who directs Portland’s Cappella Romana vocal ensemble, found Greek-born American composer Michaelides’s unpublished, unperformed 1960 manuscript in the attic of Portland’s Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and revived it. The a cappella score’s austere modal harmonies sound both ancient and surprisingly contemporary. The scripture readings can get tedious on disc, but it’s easy to program out the prayers and focus on the superb ensemble’s serene and splendidly sung choral sections.