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Category: 21st century music

Trumpeter Nate Wooley Tackles the Deceptively Simple Challenges of a Michael Pisaro-Liu Solo Piece

It’s rare that an album of music for a solo wind instrument is of much interest to anyone beyond those who play it. There are notable exceptions. Wadada Leo Smith has put out several breathtakingly beautiful solo trumpet albums. Peter Evans’ solo trumpet work is more spectacularly breathtaking (and electronically enhanced). And Natsuki Tamura’s solo trumpet albums are a lot of fun for those who appreciate his renegade extended technique and irrepressible sense of humor.

Nate Wooley is probably not the first trumpeter you’d think of doing a solo record, especially considering his dense and bracing recent output with his Columbia Icefield project. But he has a solo album (for trumpet and sinewave), a recording of Michael Pisaro-Liu’s longform, minimalist composition Stem-Flower-Root. It hasn’t hit the web yet, although there’s a live version from 2017 up at Soundcloud. The calm and unhurried development of the work might be reflected in Wooley’s upcoming gig on July 5 at 6:30 PM at Downtown Music Gallery, where he’s playing with Cuban saxophonist Hery Paz and drummer Tom Rainey. Jazz bassist Henry Fraser and Americana violinist Cleek Schrey make an intriguing duo afterward at 7:30; it’s a pass-the-bucket situation.

Pisaro-Liu’s work requires Wooley to sustain a series of simple tones using subtly different timbral approaches, and a changing series of mutes. If a reveille or fanfare could exist on Pluto, this triptych would be both. But it’s not all warmly immersive reflection: there are a few moments where the harmonies edge into unexpectedly acerbic territory, and there’s a joke about two thirds of the way in which, intentional or not, is too good to spoil.

The album also comes with a chapbook designed by Jessica Slaven, where in similarly uncluttered prose, Pisaro-Liu raises many provocative philosophical questions. Some are eternal, some more specific to the piece. To what extent does the architecture of musical composition mirror the symmetry of nature? Can a composition, or for that matter, a whole genre, have a genuine personality? What improbable practical lessons can be gleaned from music as rigorously structured and focused, yet as comfortably atmospheric as this?

The composer and performer also share an interesting dialogue concerning both the nuts and bolts of playing it, along with some of the philosophical ramifications.

Max Richter Playfully Reinvents an Iconic Vivaldi Suite – Again

A decade after reinterpreting Vivaldi on his playfully innovative Recomposed album with the Britten Sinfonia and violinist Daniel Hope, keyboardist Max Richter has opted to revisit lucrative territory with his latest project The New Four Seasons. Violinist Elena Urioste and the Chineke Orchestra join the composer, who unobtrusively plays a vintage Moog synth as well as sprightly harpsichord on the new vinyl record, streaming at Spotify.

Is this art-rock? The avant garde? Modern classical? Ambient music? A little, or sometimes a lot of all of those labels come into play here. Spring is reconstituted in four parts, the other seasons in three. Frequently, Richter’s cuisinarted baroque barely resembles the original. All the same, it’s playful, sometimes affectingly pensive music and draws the listener into his allusive treasure hunt.

Birdsong-like strings chatter and flutter over a somber loop from the basses as Spring begins, shifting to a steady, often hypnotic pavane. Richter lets the composer’s hushed anticipatory riffs from Summer resonate; from there, he makes a striding march out of it and then brings it down to a suspenseful summer-evening pulse. The conclusion, with Urioste going lickety-split, is a visceral thrill.

The goofy quasi-flamenco syncopation of the intro to Autumn borders on the ridiculous, but Urioste’s quicksilver volleys quickly take charge. Richter’s shift to sheer luxuriance is a welcome contrast, as is the stately harpsichord movement and the kinetic conclusion. 

Winter is where Richter reaches furthest into the avant garde, notably with the microtonal introduction kicking off a memorably blustery, symphonic sweep. Urioste’s wary lyricism and then her precise run through the closing labyrinth take centerstage as the suite winds up. 

Where can you hear Vivaldi around New York this summer? Tonight, June 28 at 7:30 PM at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, where Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, led by violinist Aisslinn Nosky play works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Geminiani, Handel and Charles Avison. Get there early if you want a seat.

The Knights Make History With Beethoven and Janacek at the Naumburg Bandshell

Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park was a welcome return for one of New York’s most enduring cosmopolitan traditions. This was a particularly clever installment. It’s been done before: pairing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata.” A Naumburg Concert favorite, chamber orchestra the Knights worked several levels of meta with new symphonic arrangements of both: the former a chart by violinist Colin Jacobsen, the latter a collaboration between his brother Eric and Knights horn player Mike Atkinson.

Orchestral scores for both works go back as far as Tschaikovsky, who did it with Beethoven. Likewise, there have been plenty of programs pairing both of the original pieces. But yesterday evening’s concert might have been the first time two orchestral versions of both have been played on the same bill. It turned out to be as colorful as expected, considering the ensemble’s penchant for surprise.

They opened with a Colin Jacobsen piece, playfully titled Kreutzings, rising from dizzyingly dissociative layers through jaunty microtonal glissandos from around the ensemble, to a coyly contrapuntal waltz. Flickers of each of the night’s main composers bubbled to the surface occasionally as the strings joined in precise, steady eighth notes while winding their way out.

Jacobsen, celebrating his birthday, served as soloist in the Beethoven. Crisp, elegant cheer interchanged with a little suspense and a bustling freshness that veered toward the raw side in the opening movement, confirming how well this material lends itself to orchestral sweep and majesty. Jacobsen quickly went for silkiness and ran with it amid anxious Vivaldiesque counterpoint. The restless thicket of low strings toward the end was a particularly juicy moment for the orchestra to sink their teeth into.

As if by design, a passing airplane introduced the andante second movement, bubbly woodwinds picking up the pace considerably before Jacobsen took over with a fine-toothed staccato. The bristling energy never dissipated, through lushness and a coyly pulsing bounce beneath the violinist’s spirals, flurries and animated pizzicato. Interestingly, the finale was on the spare and restrained side, despite the velocity: an urbane party that earned a contrastingly raucous standing ovation.

After the intermission, the ensemble tackled Anna Clyne’s Stride. Echoing the concert’s opening number, fleeting hints of Beethoven percolated amid tense close harmonies and microtones over a striding tempo flecked with rather suspenseful lulls and a long trajectory up to an anthemic, Dvorakian coda. Clyne doesn’t usually go for fullscale High Romantic: turns out she excels at it. This was a revelation.

Janacek’s first quartet follows the drama and familial mischegas of the Tolstoy tale, giving us an extra level of meta. Furtive Balkan chromatics quickly receded for an aching lushness and unexpected pageantry in the opening movement, only to reappear in a tensely gripping, Bernard Herrmann vein. Giving the anxious conversation in the third movement to the woodwinds paid magnificently poignant dividends on the way to an equally memorable stampede out. The ensemble encored with flutist Alex Sopp leading the group through a lickety-split, buoyant arrangement of a Taraf de Haidoucks Romany dance tune.

For those who missed the concert, the Knights managed to record the Beethoven and Janacek in February 2020, just under the wire before the fateful events that would crush the world a few weeks later. The next Naumburg Bandshell concert is on June 28 at 7:30 PM with the Handel and Haydn Society, led by violinist Aisslinn Nosky, playing works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Geminiani, Handel and Charles Avison.

Danny Holt Tackles the Fiery, Lyrical Music of a Legendary David Bowie Pianist

Many years ago, this blog’s owner had what turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see David Bowie in concert. As far as bucket-list shows go, this was at the very top.

It was a huge disappointment. The long-since-razed Roseland Ballroom in midtown Manhattan had notoriously bad, boomy sound. The Thin White Duke didn’t play guitar, the setlist was mostly forgettable 1990s material, and he had that awful, florid guitarist who played with him in his even more forgettable Tin Machine project.

One of the few upsides to the concert was that it was the first time that Bowie had performed with pianist Mike Garson since the 1970s. And Garson seemed to be jumping out of his shoes to be playing the gig, firing off one elegant, rapidfire cascade after another. Fast forward to 2022: Garson is making a rare Manhattan small-club appearance at Mezzrow on June 19 at 7:30 PM with Don Falzone on bass and Billy Mintz on drums. Cover is $25 cash at the door, but this could be an instance where you might want to make a reservation in advance.

One Garson album that fans need to hear actually doesn’t have Garson on it. He came up with the material while improvising on a Yamaha Disclavier (the digitally-empowered precursor to the Steinway Spirio). Pianist Danny Holt plays those transcriptions on his latest release, Piano Music of Mike Garson, streaming at Spotify. Most of them could be considered preludes, or suites of them.

Holt opens dramatically with the aptly titled Homage to Chopin and Godowsky, a look back at the kind of daunting, lyrical rivulets and meticulously articulated chords Garson wowed the crowd with at that Roseland show all those years ago. The second track, a Bowie homage, is a fondly Asian-tinged fugue of sorts.

There are fifteen other pieces on the album, spanning a characteristically wide swath of styles. Rampaging art-rock gives way to thorny Ligeti-esque interludes, labyrinthine passages that could be Schumann or Janacek, insistently rhythmic moments that come across as High Romantic Steve Reich, and a warmly inviting nocturne or two..

Needless to say, Garson’s skills creating this kind of intensity out of thin air are undiminished, and Holt deserves equal credit for having both the good taste and chops to deliver Garsons’s icepick lefthand and intricately harmonized two-handed passages with equal flair and precision.

A Colorful Environmentalist Playlist From Yolanda Kondonassis

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis is a force of nature. The author of The Composer’s Guide to Writing Well for the Modern Harp has wide-ranging and impeccable taste in repertoire, from Satie to Hovhaness and just about all points in between. Her new solo album Five Minutes For Earth – streaming at Spotify – is a sparkling, dynamically rich collection of new works inspired by nature and the need to preserve our world from manmade disasters. Most of these pieces are on the short side, commissioned from an eclectic mix of well-known and up-and-coming composers.

The first number, Takuma Itoh’s Kohola Sings, traces the migration of humpbacked whales through the desolate depths, to a convivial, intricately woven crescendo. Kondonassis begins Michael Daugherty‘s Hear the Dust Blow, an Oklahoma Dust Bowl tableau. with gentle guitar-like voicings in a ballad without words that dissipates in cascades and frenetic flurries.

With its careful cadences and occasional enigmatic close harmonies, Aaron Jay Kernis‘ On Hearing Nightbirds at Dusk seems to focus more on the dusk than the birds. Kondonassis gets to revel in her instrument’s wide expanse throughout the elegant trajectories and sudden bursts in Chen Yi‘s Dark Mountains.

There’s muted mystery as Maximo Diego Pujol’s Milonga para mi Tierra unfolds, to a graceful tango. Reena Ismail‘s Inconvenient Wounds balances murk and sudden smoky smudges against a delicate lattice, a striking cautionary tale. Gary Schocker’s Memory of Trees shares a dichotomy, in this case between the catchy baroque melody at the center, and more unsettled passages.

As Earth Dreams, by Keith Fitch is not a portrait of troubled sleep, although its starry milieu is definitely restless. Jocelyn Chambers packs a lot of catchy, broodingly strolling riffage into her miniature Melting Point. In The Demise of the Shepard Glacier. Philip Maneval balances spacious phrases and steady rivulets to illustrate the slow disappearance of the Montana ice formation.

Kondonassis follows a brisk series of eighth-note passages and feathery interludes in Patrick Harlin‘s Time Lapse. Green, by Zhou Long is a spare and allusively Asian-tinged piece originally written for pipa and wood flute. Nathaniel Heyder‘s Earthview portrays a descent to earth through the atmosphere, an imperiled planet coming into clearer focus via insistent anchor notes and eerie, Messiaenic tonalities.

The album’s most verdantly minimalist number, complete with wry woodland sounds, is Meditation at Perkiomen Creek, a Pennsylvania tableau by Daniel Dorff. The final composition is Stephen Hartke‘s Fault Line, with its stabbing phantasmagoria and close-harmonied disquiet: it’s a strong closer.

Happily. greenwashing doesn’t seem to factor into Kondonassis’ agenda. She’s not endorsing any sinister schemes like the abolition of home or motor vehicle ownership, or the imposition of personal carbon allowances or Chinese communist-style social credit scores. She just loves the outdoors – which, in the context of 2022, is a welcome and genuinely radical concept.

A Darkly Memorable Duo Album by Saxophonist Thomas Giles and Pianist Liana Pailodze Harron

Under ordinary circumstances, an album titled Mysteries of the Macabre would be most likely to be found here during the annual, October-long Halloween celebration of all things dark and creepy. But these last several months have been all that. And it wouldn’t be fair to make you wait til this fall to hear saxophonist Thomas Giles and pianist Liana Pailodze Harron‘s album, streaming at Spotify. It’s a powerful and vivid reflection of our time.

Both artists dedicate themselves to popularizing the work of new and obscure artists: they make a good team. The album comprises four medium-length pieces, which are in general more haunting than outright macabre. The first work is Poeme for Saxophone and Piano, a partita by Asiya Korepanova. Giles enters on alto sax with just short of a shriek, then follows a steady, subtly dynamic series of allusively grim chromatic variations, employing a crystalline, oboe-like tone punctuated by foghorn trills. Harron doesn’t get to join the disquieted parade until the end. The obvious influence is Messiaen, a composer the duo will explore shortly.

They intertwine in a similarly somber, skeletal stroll in the next part, Harron fueling a turbulent drive and liquidly articulated cascades. Giles’ spacious, uneasily soaring minimalism finally lures Harron in to rise and fall, in an increasingly agitated theme. Korepanova may be best known as a pyrotechnic concert pianist, but this speaks mightily to her prowess as a composer.

Messiaen’s Theme et Variations is next, the two following a similarly determined if more muted path, Harron’s meticulous, icepick attack balanced by Giles’ floating legato, through the composer’s eerily chiming tonalities and an unexpectedly jaunty if enigmatic dance. Giles’ rise to a shivery, theremin-like timbre right before the piece winds down is breathtakng.

The two revel in the Gyorgi Ligeti piece from which the album takes its title, through initial poltergeist flickers, scrambling phantasmagoria, a dazzling display of circular breathing, from Giles, and some playful spoken word.

The concluding work is Jay Schwartz‘s Music for Saxophone and Piano. Giles parses spare, somber motives over just the hint of resonance from inside the piano, serving as an artful echo. From there Harron develops a bounding melody line as Giles’ tectonic sheets bend, weave and flurry. Rising and falling from a muted pavane to tense doppler sax and a grim quasi-boogie in the low lefthand, the musicians reach an ending that will take you by surprise. It’s a fitting conclusion to this darkly beguiling album.

Springtime Blossoms in Boston With a Concert of Vivid World Premieres

Last night at the Multicultural Art Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Juventas New Music Ensemble played eight verdant world premieres celebrating the Frederick Law Olmsted bicentennial. In a spot-on example of post-March 2020 programming, the bill was titled Lungs of the City. It was a breath of fresh air on many levels.

A subset of the ensemble – which comprised flutist Wei Zhao, clarinetist Wolcott Humphrey, horn player Anne Howarth, violinist Ryan Shannon, cellist Minjin Chung, violist Lu Yu and percussionist Thomas Schmidt – went off script to open with a sober arrangement the Ukrainian national anthem. With the stark cello introduction, it seemed like more of an elegy than a celebration of solidarity. Such are the times we live in.

The first piece on the program was The Forest and the Architect, by Christina Rusnak. The Portland, Oregon tableau began with elegantly cheerful passages spotted with moments of more somber reflection, moody clarinet over a gently emphatic march and a visceral sense of relief. Burred woodwind timbres and a dancing, enigmatic, circular theme quickly gave way to a lush pastorale and then a dance kicked off by woody flute tones. A terse interweave with lower pitches developed to mingle with the initial theme: this music breathed, deeply.

Ryan Suleiman‘s still, meditative Piece of Mind was inspired by Olmsted’s Brookline home workshop, as well as the Japanese concept of a park coexisting with nature rather than being imposed on its milieu. Subtly breathtaking long tones and circular breathing from the wind players were first punctuated by momentary sprouts in the ether, then the group slowly unfolded a calm series of harmonies. Like a muezzin, Chung’s cello sounded a bracing trill before the whole group returned to calmly shifting tectonic sheets.

That work’s minimalism was echoed more playfully by Libby Meyer‘s diptych Beauty of the Fields. Butterfly weed was brought to life by minutely oscillating overtones from Schmidt’s vibraphone behind a minimalistically balmy flute theme sailing on the breeze. With echoey percussion through a buzzy haze, evocations of muted insect activity and birdsong, her portrait of milkweed just might have involved somebody plucking a ripe stalk and blowing it on an unsuspecting neighbor.

Ayumi Okada‘s tantalizingly brief partita Golden Hour Walk at Fort Tryon Park traced the Washington Heights composer’s 2021 winter solstice stroll through her favorite spots there just as the sun was about to go down over the Hudson. It was characteristically evocative, beginning as a wistful pavane and growing more animated, with Carl Nielsen-esque echo phrases bouncing from voice to voice. Baroque inflections, elegantly intertwined horn and flute, and colorfully squirrelly pizzicato rose to a lushness that contrasted with shivery strings and silken flute lines. The final sunset theme became a gently wafting, Dvorakian singalong.

Composer Justin Ralls related that prior to creating parks, Olmsted worked as an undercover journalist chronicling the horrors of slavery in the American south, and that those experiences informed the democratic aspect of his designs. Ralls’ Olmsted 200: Theme and Variations reflected the bustle of the landscape assembled around Seattle’s Lincoln Reservoir. Somewhat akin to Peer Gynt taking a stroll in the garden, the group’s long tones coalesced from echoes of a familiar, sunny morning theme to a rather triumphant, steady, circular pulse fueled by the highs. Tight polyrhythmic counterpoint receded to a reflective, echoing quiet signaled by Schmidt’s lingering vibes.

The most unselfconsciously catchy piece on the bill was Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Indian-flavored mini-suite Olmsted Gardens. Anticipatory sprouts of melody pushed up, to a cheery carnatic flute theme followed by a deliciously coy, suspenseful interlude with film noir bongos, furtive individual voicings having devious fun in the shadows. The group took it out with an anthemic return to the initial dance.

Also on the bill were an unhurried, warmly crescendoing Oliver Caplan ballad without words, and a similarly fond summer pageant by Nell Shaw Cohen bookended around a cautious dance.

Those who missed the concert can catch the video of the entire performance here. Juventas New Music Ensemble’s next scheduled concert is June 5 at 6 PM at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts. Tickets are $18, ages 4-12 get in for $12.

The Smudges Bust Out With a Deviously Funny, Indomitable Debut String Jazz Album

Maggie Parkins and her sisters may have the best taste in instruments of any family of jazz luminaries. She plays cello. Sisters Zeena and Andrea (harp and accordion, respectively) share a love for eclectic sounds that defy categorization. Maggie’s husband Jeff Gauthier may be better known for running Cryptogramophone – one of the few record labels whose imprimatur carries genuine cred – but he’s also an inspired violinist. Together the two are the Smudges, who after years together have finally released their debut album, streaming at Bandcamp. In an era of endless virtue signaling and pomposity, we need more music as defiantly unserious and playfully entertaining as this.

It’s easy to lump the album under the rubric of jazz, but the influences run wild here, from the baroque to rocksteady to genre-busting acts like the Kronos and Turtle Island Quartets. Considering that the two musicians weathered the lockdown under the draconian Gavin Newsom regime in California, it’s amazing how they never lost their joie de vivre. Parkins, especially, seems to be in good spirits, spicing these songs with puckish pizzicato, sly glissandos and woozy electronic effects.

The duo dig in hard for the bright, stately opening number, Music of Chants, harmonizing with an Indian carnatic flavor. The album’s second track is Julius Caesar Eyebrows, which comes across as an edgy tarantella at halfspeed. The two rise from austere harmonies to stern fugal triplets, then Gauthier takes bracing, judicious steps and whirling riffs over Parkins’ biting, pedaled chords before the song comes around again.

They build The Gigue Is Up around a cheery riff that sounds straight out of Jamaica, 1966, Gauthier’s jaunty leaps and trills over Parkins’ lithely dancing incisions. Kasha’s Lament is ridiculously funny: beyond the good cop/bad cop dichotomy, no spoilers. The two run themselves through a series of hilariously goofy, warpy electronic patches to begin Matter of Time, but then get very serious. through a wary heroic theme before going completely off the rails again. Is this a cautionary tale about taking yourself too seriously?

Cartoonishly irresistible moments persist in the album’s most epic, noisiest number, the title track: the degree to which musicians can fixate on birdsong never ceases to amaze. Goodnatured amusement continues amid drifting ambience and jaunty syncopation in Blitva, then grows more puckish and fleeting in Palindromes. The two wind up the album with Release: just when you think this collection is mostly jokes, they throw this expertly articulated fugue at you. Beyond that, this is a rare string jazz party record. Spin this at your next get-together after everybody’s had a few and you will get lots of “Who the hell are these guys?”

Four Vast, Unhurried, Profoundly Relevant Minimalist Symphonies From Wadada Leo Smith

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith‘s music exists in a universe of due process for important ideas. In the past couple of decades, he’s focused on vast expanses: Great Lakes, decades of history and eternal philosophical questions. He explores them as if time stands still: everything is considered, judiciously, with plenty of room for individual contributions from a cast of like-minded improvisers. One of his most epic recent projects – his music may be on the slow side, but he works very fast – is the box set of his four Chicago Symphonies, They’re major works in a career full of them. He’s named them for precious metals and stones: in order, Gold. Diamond, Pearl and Sapphire (click each title for Spotify streams).

Smith was one of the prime movers of the AACM movement in the 60s, and he salutes many of the important figures from that era here throughout the first three symphonies. The fourth, dedicated to Presidents Lincoln and Obama, is the most upbeat and invites some controversy (full disclosure: this blog’s owner voted for Obama twice and is now considering how serious a mistake that might have been).

Smith cites Don Cherry’s landmark 1966 Symphony For Improvisers as a precursor. Each symphony features his Great Lakes Quartet: the first three including Henry Threadgill on alto sax and flutes alongside bassist John Lindberg and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Jonathon Haffner takes over the sax chair on alto and soprano on the final symphony. All of this is profound, unhurried, conversational music.

Although each symphony is a stand-alone work, the four share many consistent tropes. Smith and Threadgill frequently exchange resonant, tectonic sheets of sound rather than riff battles. Lindberg’s bass work is exquisite: for those who love low-register sonics. this melodic feast lasts for literally hours, through sepulchral, shivery cello-like lines, insistent, rhythmic hooks and variations, to looming chords. The muted mystery in the second movement of Symphony No. 2 and stark oldtime gospel allusions in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 3 are among the many, many highlights here.

Haffner is a good choice of foil for Smith throughout Symphony No. 4. As the Obama campaign becomes an unstoppable machine, his energetic flurries are the closest thing to straight-ahead postbop soloing here, and seem to drive Smith to some of his most high-voltage work in recent memory.

Likewise, DeJohnette’s sparkle, flash, mist and frequent rumble here are as purposeful as his steady forward drive is distinctive. There’s nobody who tunes his kit quite like he does, resulting in both an extra layer of melody, as well as colorful evocations of Asian temple mystery in Symphony No. 1 and a frequent devious employment of hardware and rattles, as if to say, “Let’s not get too full of ourselves.”

Threadgill seems to be in a particularly good mood here on alto sax, his gentle, often tender lines that once in awhile veering completely off course into surreal microtones or flickers of other extended technique. His flute is generally limited to wafting long-tone phrases.

For Smith, this is one of his most dynamic releases in recent years, and there are a handful of irresistibly funny quotes (one which he loops over and over) and a couple of unexpected wack-a-mole moments with Threadgill. Whether soberly constructing a valley of kings with immutable boulders of sound, alluding to or full-on embracing the deep blues which remains at the root of his entire career, or firing off rambunctiously optimistic flurries as he does repeatedly in Symphony No. 4, he’s at the top of his game. It’s astonishing that he’s now in his eighties and if anything, more vital than ever.

Whether creating Twin Peaks blues in the opening movement of Symphony No. 2, expanding on what seems to be a cynical O’Jays reference in the second movement of Symphony No. 1 or the dichotomy between Smith’s variations on a popular, celebratory theme and Lindberg’s obsidian chordal solo in the fourth movement of Symphony No, 3, this is a classic example of what four hall of famers can conjure when left to their own devices. Or enough for a close listener to come up with two pages of notes in ten-point type. Rather than making it an all-night listening party, you will enjoy these best at a leisurely pace across a few evenings.

American Choir and Andalucian Traditional Ensemble Join Forces to Mesmerizing Effect

One of the most fascinatingly original large-ensemble albums of recent months is Words Adorned, the cross-pollinated collaboration between Philadelphia chamber choir The Crossing and traditional Andalucian group the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, streaming at Navona Records (click the link and scroll down to the listen button on the left). Donald Nally conducts; the lyrics are in Arabic.

While the tradition of audience singalongs in Middle Eastern music goes back thousands of years, there’s never been an album quite like this: a choral group fond of concept albums with music by contemporary composers joining forces with a starkly dusky, often rustic maqam ensemble. The closest comparison is the Navatman Music Collective, who bring harmony to new Indian music, another otherwise completely harmony-less idiom. Which is not to say that the music here always employs harmonies, but when it does, the effect is striking.

There are two suites on the album. The first is Kareem Roustom‘s new settings of ancient poetry, titled Embroidered Verses, packed with unexpected diversions and false endings. The opening song is Oh People of Andalucia, What Beauty You Have, where suspenseful ripples and flurries from Wassim Odeh’s oud and Hicham Chami’s kanun are quickly joined by the choir. A fleeting, bracing rise from Hanna Khoury’s violin and Kinan Abou-afach’s cello at the end will give you goosebumps.

The second number, a drinking song, begins with a surreal, strutting riff before the chorus and instrumentalists kick in over a jaunty clip-clop rhythm fueled by Hafez Kotain’s percussion. The mix of baroque counterpoint and Arabic maqam modes is surreal, to say the least.

The third segment, a setting of a love poem by Umm Al-Kiram has a gentle, lilting motion, tantalizing accents from the strings, an even more tantalizing Khoury solo and breathtaking contrast between her shivery lines and the crescendoing power of the singers. The bellicose finale begins with a mysterious pulse from the strings, the men of the choir anchoring the most rhythmically complex and harmonically enigmatic interlude here. This time it’s the kanun rippling through the mix which provides the extra bite.

The second suite is Abou-Afach‘s Of Nights and Solace, a collection of poems that begin at sunset and wind up at the break of dawn the following day. Soloist Dalal Abu Amneh‘s assertively articulated soprano blends within an increasingly complex contrapuntal web in the opening prelude, Moonrise.

She brings a visceral sense of longing to the second song, Greet These Faces, over a slinky, gorgeously bittersweet, glittering backdrop, the choir echoing and doubling the melody line: it’s the most hypnotic track here. As you would expect, Forsaken is more desolate, stark and ghostly, the choir using a vast sonic and dynamic range as they rise from basso profundo lows.

A lively but understated instrumental mix of flamenco and dervish dance sets up You Who Left and Passed, blending the playful and the plaintive, spaciousness giving way to robust density. The two groups pack a wild blend of ideas into the rousing, barely two-minute concluding sunrise tableau.

Abu Amneh and the takht ensemble wind up this late-2019 concert recording with When He Appeared, a brisk, stately, haunting song utilizing text by Muhammad Abd Al-Rahim Al-Maslub. It’s rare that music this cutting-edge is just as unselfconsciously beautiful.