Category Archives: CD Reviews

Compositional Improvisation in the Western US

CD Review
Glenn Stallcop: Ash Fork Verses: Set #3; Glenn Stallcop, piano. Available at CDBaby, iTunes, and

Arizona. Land of mesas and pine trees. High elevations give this state the southernmost skiing area in the US; and lovely alpine regions appear as oases in the high desert. That high, dry sensibility suffuses the compositional improvisations of Glenn Stallcop, composer and practitioner of this rare art form.

Compositional improvisation is, strictly speaking, a subset of classical improvisation. The distinction is necessary because, as a general rule, classical improvisation usually involves improvisation in the styles of composers other than the performing pianist/composer. Compositional improvisation is classical improvisation––as distinct from jazz improvisation––in the style of the performing pianist/composer. Many of the great composer/pianists of the past were well-known compositional improvisers (Chopin, Scriabin, Liszt, Brahms, among others). Many of the most important works of these composers were developed out of improvisations. It is almost axiomatic that any living, thriving music has improvisation at its core–witness Jazz and Baroque music.

Glenn’s improvisations were influenced, as were many improvisers, by Keith Jarrett. And, as Keith has followed a path leading further away from jazz in some ways, Glenn, a classical composer by trade, has spent much of his improvising career developing a distinctly classical style of improvisation. Glenn’s improvisations are also inspired by the landscapes surrounding his cabin in Arizona. That mix of pine and dust swirls about in his music; the arid, pungent qualities of advanced tonal harmony augment the dust devil textures. One of the densest tracks, ironically, is simply named “Playing The Harmonica”, and seems more concerned with the overtones the harmonica produces than any discrete melodies. Considering Glenn’s consistently dissonant yet tonal style, it is very much atmosphere rather than tone painting he seems to be aiming for.

An interesting issue with improvisation is that often tends to become a kind of background music. It is by its very nature more rambling than written music––but in a sense more naturalistic as well––and in the hands of a skilled practitioner can become a unique art form which speaks more about the moment to moment operations of the human brain than the carefully worked out patterns of written music.

Our brains are improvisational by their very nature; they go hither and yon often with little or no apparent overall direction. Jazz seems to understand this. It is this satisfying presentness that seems lacking in a lot of written music, and may indeed be one of the core problems that keeps classical music from becoming better appreciated in this day and age. Thanks to pioneering musicians like Glenn Stallcop, that situation may someday be remedied.

Glenn’s CD’s may be found here:

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

Solo: Works of Telemann, Bach, Schubert, Piazzolla; Tomas Cotik, violin


CD Review
Solo: Works of Telemann, Bach, Schubert, Piazzolla; Tomas Cotik, violin.
Centaur CD CRC3374

Three of the solo violin sonatas of Georg Philipp Telemann appear on this CD: Bb major, B minor, and D major. In general, the movements of these works alternate between strict counterpoint and freer fantasia forms. Mr. Cotik very much takes this to heart in his playing, performing the contrapuntal movements with absolute concentration on the polyphony, and contrasting this with the sense of abandon he gives to the fantasia movements. I marvel at the technical skill which effortlessly encompasses these deeply contrasting styles. And, though I initially felt his tempo in the Siciliana of the B minor was perhaps a bit slow and concentrated, the liveliness of the following Vivace showed consistent conception, especially as he combines the moods of each movement in the concluding Allegro. Programming the relative major D major sonata after this, a work where the moods are transposed (fast-slow now) was a technical as well as expressive master stroke.

As excellent as the Telemann sonatas are, within a minute or so of entering the Bach C major sonata we know we are in a different world. In his time, Bach used (or implied) so many of the harmonies which came afterwards in music that we might say that all music composed subsequently is, in some sense, redundant. Cotik highlights the harmonic adventurousness of the first movement, bringing a Poulenc-ian (yes!) wistfulness to some of the cluster diatonic harmony, shifting back into high polyphony when necessary. The sheer weight of the following Fuga demands the kind of concentration equal to any of the composer’s grandest solo movements. Bach here effortlessly mixes what was generally separate in the Telemann: strict fugue, and passages which are apotheoses of improvisatory textures. Cotik thoroughly understands all of this: the chromatic subtleties, the diatonic rhapsodies, and the overall nobility of this work. The Largo which follows is almost like a Praeludium, but before the fugue; a stately chaconne-like movement, where Cotik shapes phrases in accord with the dignity of the music. The concluding Allegro Assai is sheer improvisation, Tomas bringing the performance aplomb apparent in other similar movements earlier in the disk to this one.

Tiny wisps of the dance. Thus are the little-known Schubert Ländler included from tracks 15-18. Each work—many less than a minute—evoke not only the spirit of the composer who wrote more dance tunes than most other composers, but also the atmosphere of the larger culture of which they were a part. As Mr. Cotik states in his liner notes, “These Ländler…show traces of …Gemuetlichkeit from the Biedermeier period. This was a period when Viennese society was turned inward, to home and family, to innocent nonpolitical activities, as a distraction to avoid the oppression of the repressive police state ruled by Emperor Francis after Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna”. Gemuetlichkeit is a quality often derided in our contemporary culture, to which such stuff is as alien as the air of another planet. Considering the composer, and the culture of the time, these little works stand as precious jewels of culture in a threatened society and, with their simple yet consummate elegance, show how civilization may persevere in the face of barbarism. Tomas’ interpretation of these naked works is wistful yet swinging, danceable yet thoughtful. He brings much of the ‘apotheosis of the dance’ quality to them that he brought to the Allegro Assai movement of the Bach.

On to Piazzolla. That great musician of Mr. Cotik’s homeland has figured prominently in Tomas’ performing career, and the passion always shows in his performances. These difficult tango-based Études round out a CD full of the rhythms of the dance, be they rhapsodic or polyphonic. Piazzolla’s Études contain both, in the spirit of the Telemann and especially the Bach. Cotik brings a technique to these pieces that is similar, yet distinctly different from those earlier essays. This dance is the tango, a highly-syncopated dance form which shows the influence of a popular music perhaps more rhythmically developed than the 18th and 19th-century forms of the composers covered so far. Thus, the range of string techniques has been broadened, notably the inclusion of the subtle glissandi which characterize Tango. I particularly like N° 4, which comes closest to a true ‘dance apotheosis’ in its melancholy counterpoint reminiscent of the Adagio from Khatchaturian’s Gayane suite. What is most touching about Cotik’s playing here is the occasional subtle stuttering of the bow—not a spiccato, sautille, or jete–at the end of a phrase, as if the emotion momentarily (and deliberately) overwhelms the technique.
Good to see Cotik conclude his survey with these works, as they show how dance–and dance polyphony–have evolved through Telemann, Bach, Schubert, and Piazzolla. The homophony of dance, and the polyphony of the fugue and related contrapuntal forms have mixed well in the works of composers great and small, and works like the Piazzolla ensure that such composition will carry on into the future.
Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.


Pacific Ridge: Orchestral Works and Concertos of Emma Lou Diemer

CD Review

Pacific Ridge: Orchestral Works and Concertos of Emma Lou Diemer.

NV5898 (Navona Records)

The Santa Barbara Overture is an orchestral work which contains a richly varied history of American music. Often, though, it is American music as seen through the eyes of Europeans, and–in some cases–transmuted back to the American. Gershwin’s American in Paris is such a work. An American tribute to the City of Light–echoing the work of Les Six among others–it is European until the music evoked is jazz, whereupon it becomes “American” again–still seen through European eyes–yet ultimately realized by an American composer.

Santa Barbara is a place that parallels this sort of musical evolution–a city like Tangier, Morocco. Exotic, temperate, visited by Europeans and Americans (notably Paul Bowles) who took both exotic and European aspects of Tangier and translated them into American prose and music. The fact that Diemer has lived in Santa Barbara for many years helps make this music convincing. Having spent eight years there myself, the music evokes for me my best memories of the eclecticism of that special city.

Concerto In One Movement For Marimba hews into somewhat different territory. The marimba in contemporary classical music has to some extent (at least for this listener) become associated with Steve Reich’s music–as such, it has come to have a supporting role which is almost structural in nature. In this concerto the instrument breaks free, partaking at once of the kind of repeated minimalistic rhythmic “riffs” which it does so well; yet, as the composer states, “the spirit of the work is related to Vivaldi in its use of slow-moving harmonies evolved through figuration”. Although Reich’s work also uses slow-moving harmonies, the marimba role there is largely harmonic. In Diemer’s work, it becomes largely melodic, including complex figurations. At the end of the cadenza, a very Ravelian oboe subject introduces a particularly satisfying contrapuntal section–a Ravel “Chaconne/Passacaglia”. This subject–melodically realized descending major and minor seventh chords–is the kind of “implied harmony in melody” of which Ravel was so fond, and Diemer uses the subject with great contrapuntal skill.

The Concerto In One Movement For Piano reminds me of my early passion for the piano concertos of Prokofiev. It makes me feel that Emma Lou must have had similar youthful reactions to that music, for this work is nothing less than a heartfelt tribute to that music. Diemer adds playing inside the piano to the equation–something that might have appealed to Prokofiev–and had he lived longer and written more concertos such an effect might have emerged in his music, enlarging the already motoric sensibility. In the middle section, the aching displacement of the Russian composer is evoked wonderfully . Pianist Betty Oberacker is well-matched to this music–a pianist of exceptional solidity, especially evident in ostinati, which are almost ferocious but always, always in control.

The fact that Emma Lou is an experienced organist shines through in the orchestral writing in all these pieces. Her instrumental choices are not only coloristically fascinating, but often achieve what Ravel did in his Bolero: casting instruments to play at certain intervals to evoke the partials used in the more overtone-rich stops on the organ.

Gregory Hall