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Oregon CDs for gifting (and getting)
by Brett Campbell
Ensemble Sonnerie: J.S. Bach Orchestral Suites
Just nominated for a Grammy, this brilliant new disk by Ensemble Sonnerie, featuring Portland Baroque Orchestra director and violinist Monica Huggett and oboist Gonzalo Ruiz, will undoubtedly draw much scrutiny and controversy for its sometimes startling revisions of what J.S. Bach lovers have been used to hearing for decades. But it should also make history by being among the first recordings to restore these classics to as close an approximation of their original orchestrations and instrumentation as possible. And because these new versions are created by veteran, historically hip performers of this music who know how it actually sounds onstage, the CD avoids musty scholarly fussiness and presents these masterpieces in fleet, full blooded, sleek performances that unleash the dance-driven energy that fueled the suites in the first place.
The most obvious departure comes in Suite #2, where, using Bach’s own example in another of his pieces, Sonnerie replaces solo flute with oboe, which according to Ruiz solves a number of performance problems that the usual version (itself a revision of a lost predecessor) presents when the piece is transposed to what’s known to be its original key. The result is a revelation that Ruiz plays with incisive spirit, handling the urgent tempo with easy aplomb.
Shorn of the majestic trumpets and drums later added, the third (with the famous Air, here admirably dispatched without the usual lugubriousness) and fourth suites lose some grandeur but more than compensate in gaining poignancy, danceable lightness and a crisp, transparent sound.
Ruiz’s liner notes make a persuasive case for his decisions, but it’d take a graduate degree in Baroque studies and thousands of words — neither currently available in the EW supply closet — to properly examine and evaluate these interpretations. Still, these elegant yet unsentimental performances bring out the music’s rhythmic élan while sounding more natural than the many others I’ve heard.
Ensemble Sonnerie has also released a recording of Mendelssohn chamber works (heard in Huggett’s recent UO appearance) that also benefits from the authentic approach. Both are fine holiday recommendations for classical music fans.
Mei Zhong with James Helton: The Silvered Lute
Former UO prof Derek Healey composed the evocative title work and highlight of this disk of mostly contemporary music for soprano and piano. Much more than mere chinoiserie, Healey’s iridescent suite lovingly evokes Asian scenes and complements Chinese composer Hua Lin’s atmospheric “The Wind and the Rain.” Eleanor Trawick’s Earth pushes Mei Zhong’s operatic voice a bit toward shrillness, but the other works on the disk, by Judith Cloud and an oldie by Joaquin Turina, round out an alluring recital.
MarchFourth Marching Band: Rise Up
Some great live bands just can’t seem to capture their in-person energy on disc. I was afraid that would happen with Portland’s M4, whose joyous performances owe so much to the visual — and visceral — impact of so many big horn toters and percussionists having so much fun, marching into the audience and throwing down.
Of course, no CD could quite encode all of M4’s costumed energy — much less its flag twirlers, stilt-walkers, unicycles, fire eaters, puppets and other accomplices — in little digital bytes. But the two- or three-dozen member collective has miraculously managed to channel its raucous sweat, swing and swagger for home and headphone. Newbies can enjoy this party-ready record for its own sake instead of just as a pale souvenir of a full color concert.
The disk presents almost the full range of M4’s diverse sounds — Mexican brass band (“Contada Ridiculata”), odd-meter Balkan party gypsies (“Simplon Cocek”), throwback Latin big band jazz (“Dynomite”), classic funk (“Freestyle for Miles,” which owes as much to James Brown as to its namesake), New Orleans second line (“Ninth Ward Calling”), gospel rave up (“Gospel”) and unclassifiable hybrids. If Herb Alpert were still running the Tijuana Brass, “Happiness” would be the perfect cover. Some proceeds from Rise Up go to Sweet Home New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that helps the damaged Crescent City’s music and cultural institutions recover from Katrina’s helluva Bush-whacking.
Trio Subtonic: Cave Dwellers
One of Portland’s coolest jazzish bands takes their irresistibly groovy music in slightly more laid back yet musically ambitious directions but retains the odd meter funk and frequent Brazilian rhythms that make the group appeal as much to jam banders, dance clubbers and even world music fans as to jazzheads.