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Friday, September 10, 2010

My Grandmother's Eternal Vigilance

My Grandmother left us in March of 2008. She lived a very productive ninety-one years and was a huge influence in my life. She taught me all the good stuff in life, like how to drive in big cities and how to bargain shop! She rescued me countless times from both financial and moral ruin.

I was always amazed at how in spite of her limited means she always managed to find the funds to bail our family out of any financial disaster we came across, and they were legion.

I was amazed today when the executor of her estate contacted me to tell me that a refund check from an insurance company had come in some two years after her death. It wasn't too much money, but both my mother and I benefited from the little surprise gift. It seems that even now, she's looking down on us and finding little ways to help from beyond the great divide.

I don't know if there's anything profound in this story, but it's interesting that just when it was most needed, we discovered the checks just one day before the post office would have returned them to sender! Thanks Granny. I love you and I miss you very much.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Daron Hagen Shines as a Composer of Chamber Music

Daron HAGEN (b.1961)
Complete Piano Trios

Piano Trio No. 3 “Wayfaring Stranger” (2006) [17:56]
Piano Trio No. 1 “Trio Concertante” (1984) [14:40]
Piano Trio No. 2 “J’entends” (1986) [17:02]
Piano Trio No. 4 “Angel Band” (2007) [22:10]

Finisterra Trio
Kwan Bin Park (violin)
Kevin Krentz (cello)
Tanya Stambuk (piano)

Recorded at The Seasons Hall, Yakima, Washington, 24-27 April, 2008

NAXOS 8.559657 [71:48]

Daron Hagen is a prolific American composer whose music was until now, completely unknown to me. Educated at The Curtis Institute and at the Juilliard School, Hagen has an impressive catalogue of works that range from operas to songs, to chamber and orchestral works. He has taught on the faculties of several prestigious institutions and his works have been commissioned and performed by many of the major artists and ensembles active today.

The 2006 trio, subtitled “Wayfaring Stranger” was doubly inspired by the composer’s late brother and by a trip through the grounds of the civil war battle of Bull Run. While passing through the historic site, the composer heard the American folk hymn and was inspired by the tune. All four movements have some element of the tune in their fabric, but it is in the beautifully lyrical second movement that the tune is most prominent. At times quasi-impressionistic, at others rather shamelessly romantic, this brief but substantial four movement work is full of contrasting colors, such that the ear is always piqued with interest. The Finisterra trio delivers a confident and well balanced performance.

The “Trio Concertant” is a much more academic work, composed while Hagen was a student of David Diamond. Considerably more serious than the folksy third trio, this student work is more of a challenge to the ear. More dissonant, it is obviously geared toward pleasing the jury more than the audience. Having said that, it is a piece that is filled with creative gestures and original thoughts. In spite of the generally tangy harmonies and angular rhythms, there are lyrical moments of repose, and these moments are what save the work from the ivory tower.

Inspired by the last words of Nadia Boulanger (“I hear a music without beginning or end.”), Hagen’s Second Trio from 1986 is both angular and lyrical, dissonant and melodic. Even though some of the terse harmonies are a bit challenging to the ear, the use of intricate counterpoint and some wonderfully virtuoso writing for violin harmonics in the second movement make this work a fascinating listen.

Perhaps my favorite of the program here is the Fourth Trio, “Angel Band” from 2007. Based on an blue grass hymn tune and further inspired by Appalachian folk instruments, the work is a tribute to Joyce Richie Stosahl, a violinist and impresario who grew up in Kentucky during the depression and went on to have a remarkable career as a soloist and orchestral musician. Set in five movements, the work is full of folksy color while still maintaining Hagen’s unique harmonic voice. It is evident though to these ears that the older Mr. Hagen gets, the more lyrical his music becomes. Some of the melodies in this, the newest of the works presented here are downright gorgeous; a trait that sharply contrasts the more academically oriented pieces from the 1980’s.

This is one of those discs that present both challenges and delights. And it is a happy occasion to report that the Finisterra Trio performs it all with a deft hand. The trio is obviously committed to the music and they perform with a fine sense of ensemble and balance. It is difficult to comment on interpretation when these works have had little recorded exposure, so I will simply say that these are convincing performances that sell the works quite well. They definitely merit repeated listening.

As for Hagen, this is my first exposure to his music, and with all first hearings, my first tendency is to ask “do I wish to hear more?” The answer is definitely yes. If Mr. Hagen can compose music this diverse for just three instruments, it will be a very exciting adventure to hear what he does with a full orchestra. Viva Naxos for their continuing commitment to bringing out the best music, whether it be widely known or not!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

My Evening with Sebastian

I have never been the kind of person who particularly enjoyed practicing the piano. That I ever became a decent pianist is amazing in its own right, and thank God my skills as a singer and conductor have been such that I could make a living in music. If I were dependent on the piano, I would surely have starved years ago.

But on rare occasions, I get into just sitting at the keyboard and actually practicing, slowly and methodically practicing a piece of music. Such was my encounter yesterday evening with Sebastian Bach.On some inexplicable whim, I opened the score to the Well-Tempered Clavier, turned to the fugue in C minor and began to play. The preludes and fugues in the WTC are some of the most intricate and perfectly elegant pieces of music ever written for the keyboard. At the time of their composition, the practice of tuning an instrument to equal terperament, a system in which you may play in any key without retuning the instrument, was relatively new. Bach set out in his twenty-four preludes and fugues to show off the new system. And in typical fashion, he created a masterpiece of perfection.

There is something about Bach's music that is medicinal to me. The often irascible and defiant kappellmeister of Leipzig was so attuned to all things spiritual, so in touch and confident in his personal faith, that his music, practically every piece of it, is infused with a sublime serenity. As I sat at the keyboard, I started by slowly playing each of the three voices of the fugue alone. I wanted to hear the contour of each line; to discover where and when that individual voice should be in the forefront or the background.

As I began to put the voices together, the most wonderful, peaceful feeling came over me. It was as if time had stopped and I was floating in the air, suspended by the power and perfection of these brief two pages of music; pages which seemed at the time to hold the secrets of the universe.

Perhaps this isn't much of a story, but the place to which I was taken yesterday by my old and trusty friend Herr Bach was a beautiful one, and I want to go back there soon. And if you, dear friends, are not piano players, perhaps you would enjoy listening to someone like Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt or Andras Schiff display the wonders of this marvelous music for you.

I wish you peace!