Tuesday 4 March 2014

American Vernacular: New Music for Solo Piano is an exciting disc from New Focus Recordings that shows some aspects of the impressive piano music being written in America today

Regular followers of The Classical Reviewer will know that I am extremely enthusiastic about contemporary music. Where better to turn then than the American pianist, Nicholas Phillips www.nicholasphillips.net described by the New York Times as an ‘able and persuasive advocate’ of new music.

Phillips is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.  He is active as a soloist and collaborative artist; recent performances include solo recitals in the USA as well as solo recitals in Korea, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and at the Croatian Embassy in Washington, D.C; chamber and solo performances on radio and performances and lecture-recitals at international conferences in Argentina, Croatia, England and Korea.

A native of Indiana, Phillips began formal piano lessons at Indiana University at the age of ten. He holds degrees in piano performance from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music (Doctor of Musical Arts), Indiana University (Master of Music), and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Bachelor of Music, summa cum laude). His teachers include internationally-renowned pianists and pedagogues Karen Taylor, Paul Barnes, Karen Shaw, and Robert Weirich, and he has participated in master classes with Marvin Blickenstaff, Ruth Laredo, and Lars Vogt, among others.

Phillips has previously released two CDs of solo piano by American composer Ethan Wickman, and Boris Papandopulo on Albany Records.

Now from New Focus Recordings www.newfocusrecordings.com comes a disc entitled American Vernacular: New Music for Solo Piano that features new works commissioned by Phillips from no less than ten American composers.

FCR 144
The three pieces by Mark Olivieri www.markolivieri.com, that make up Spectacular Vernaculars are homages to diverse musicians that have influenced the composer.

Spectacular Vernacular I. Buenas Noches, Buenas Aires: homage à Alberto Ginastera opens with a descending scale that rolls into a syncopated rhythmic, jazzy theme, full of invention and playfulness, a great little piece. Spectacular Vernacular II. Stella by Sunlight: homage à Billie Holiday acts as a contrast and is a thoughtful, sultry piece that broadens and increases in passion during its relatively short duration, with an improvisatory feel as the composer slowly develops his theme. The tempo picks up decisively for Spectacular Vernacular III. Stakes is Higher: homage à Ahmad Jamal and De La Soul with the music often having an insistent boogie like theme that really draws the ear.  

This is a great trio of pieces that are most appealing and that receive some fine, idiomatic playing from Nicholas Phillips.

Ethan Wickman’s www.ethanwickman.com Occidental Psalmody draws on the memory of long summer vacations travelling through many parts of the US to visit relatives. Two opening chords are gently developed with some beautifully conceived ideas, slowly broadening and filling as the music progresses. The music seems to evoke the vast landscapes that the composer speaks of in his booklet note, whilst moving in to take a closer look at various highlights. Eventually the music quietens as it leads back to its opening, before a coda that that broadens.

Ben Hjertmann www.hjertmann.com  tells us that his On the Drawing of Constellations refers neither to astrology or astronomy in the traditional sense but rather to the creative act of connecting the stars into symbols and shapes.

The quiet, tentative opening sets the scene, a cold, crystal clear canvas on which to point up little details, sometimes with quietly dissonant harmonic clashes. Occasionally the music, with its insistent motif, can sound like paired down Messiaen. At the end the music fades away quietly as though into infinity. This is something of a little gem and is played with exquisite sensitivity by Phillips.

Joel Pucket’s http://joelpuckett.com Bill-ytude refers to Billy Joel, a great formative influence on the composer, particularly his rockabilly piano fills, something which Pucket brings to his piece.

Opening with rippling, descending scales in a playful motif, Phillips’ touch provides a bell like sonority to the music. The repeated descending motif is quite intoxicating and, as the piece develops, the music appears to fragment a little before ascending chords bring a richer texture. But it is the rippling motif that returns to join the richer lower piano chords at the end. Phillips gives us some terrific playing here.

I was lucky enough to come across the music of Mohammed Fairouz http://mohammedfairouz.com when I reviewed his Symphony No.4 In the Shadow of No Towers, a very impressive work. http://theclassicalreviewer.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/works-for-wind-ensemble-by-philip-glass.html

For this new recording he has provided Piano Miniatures, three varied pieces that recall his musical hero, Liberace, his love for Tin Pan Alley ballads and a poem by Langston Hughes that reflects on the condition of African-Americans.

Piano Miniature No.10 ‘Liberace’ has a rollicking piano theme that moves through some harmonic shifts as it develops an underlying tune before arriving back at the opening. Piano Miniature No.12 opens with hushed, gentle notes slowly picked out before soon developing into a little theme, quiet and sorrowful, showing Fairouz’s melodic gift.

Piano Miniature No.13 ‘America never was America to me’ rises slowly out of a quiet opening before the music tries to speed up and increase in dynamics which, at the second attempt it achieves, with strident results as a hammering motif appears. There are angry, dissonant right hand clashes before the hammering chords for left hand take over, leading back to a quieter, reflective section to end perhaps reflecting on Hughes’ verse  ‘O, yes, I will say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath - America will be!’

David Maslanka’s www.davidmaslanka.com   Beloved grew out of pieces for remembrance that he has written and is both personal and expresses the quality of one side of a conversation one might have with one’s beloved, especially one departed.

There is a quiet, gentle opening as the piano picks out a little six note motif that slowly develops, becoming richer and more dynamic. The music falls to a quieter passage that very slowly moves forward, step by step, before a suddenly rising and falling theme, much lighter in feel, arrives, wistful, yes, but as though in remembrance of happy times. The piece ends quietly on a rising scale.

Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey by Luke Gullickson www.lukegullickson.com is also a remembrance work, recalling the guitarists John Fahey and John Hurt, for whom Fahey also wrote a Requiem.

A bold, dissonant motif opens this piece, which is soon developed before giving way to a rapid rising and falling motif repeated against right hand fragmented notes. The opening is repeated before the music develops, using both of the motifs, sometimes repetitive, often with a fuller sound, always subtly developing. The music is distinctively bluesy at times reflecting the artists for whom this is a tribute. The music eventually falls away to a quiet, tentative ending. Nicholas Phillips has the rhythmic and structural feel of this piece completely under his fingers whilst engaging totally with the emotional content.

John Griffin’s www.johncgriffin.com   Playin’ and Prayin’ recalls two styles of music, the hoe-down and the church hymn.

Playin’ and Prayin’ opens with plucked piano strings before the theme is repeated on the keys of the piano. A developed version of the plucked theme then alternates before the theme is broadened. Before long the music moves into the hoe-down, a terrific piece, though often very much varied from the traditional form. The music slows as a hymn like melody arrives, developed out of earlier material, but it is the hoe-down that leads the music to the end.

Phillips is ideal in this music, able to pull all the varying strands together.

William Price http://williampricecomposer.com reflects on what it is to be ‘Southern’ in his A Southern Prelude. He views being ‘Southern’ to mean, amongst other things, being a good story teller, something that has gone into this work.

A quiet, melancholy theme opens this work, with beautifully written harmonies that, as the music develops, become more lively and passionate before falling back and quietening. Bolder, richer chords lead to a faster syncopated theme that even has, to my ears, hints of a Latin rhythm. This music is an intricate tapestry of invention, no doubt reflecting the narrative of a good story teller. Eventually the music leads to a flowing, undulating variation of the theme before pausing as the piano picks out, quietly, the melody. Suddenly there are loud interruptions but it is the quiet introspective notes that lead to the end.

Last but very much not least we have David Rakowski’s http://ziodavino.blogspot.co.uk Hotfingers: Three Vernacular Nondances studies of rhythm, form and style.

In the first, Superfractalistic, Phillips picks out a fragmented staccato motif before these fragments are allowed to make a hesitant, rhythmic theme, growing in rhythmic complexity and dynamics as music progresses. Growing Season Blues has a repeated motif that opens quietly and is quickly developed and varied, though still retaining a hesitant feel. The music soon moves to a more flowing, bouncing, gently rhythmic theme, growing into a flowing, bluesy melody that increases in complexity before reducing to a simpler, quieter version to end. Ecoutez et Répétez opens with a rapid motif for left hand with a right hand motif dancing around it. The music soon develops with some terrific rhythmic bounce showing just how Phillips can really swing. These terrific pieces show a great fusion of jazz and classical – you can’t even see the seams. They are brilliantly played by Nicholas Phillips.

This is an exciting disc that shows aspects of the impressive music that some of America’s composers are writing.

Though recorded quite closely there is ample clarity and detail and a warm piano tone. There are notes by the composers as well as composer biographies. 


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