Category Archives: Minimalism

CD Review–Music from Prague

CD Review

Music from Prague: Works by Weber, Milhaud, Krenek, Schlenck, Reiprich

CRS CD 1192

Weber’s status as a sort of lesser Beethoven is to some extent confirmed by his Clarinet Concerto No. 1, as it seems a rambling mix of both Mozart and Beethoven. However, John Russo’s singing tone manages to bring out the Mozart in Weber. Russo seems to realize that Mozart “invented” the clarinet concerto, and the rollicking good humor evident right from the start of the piece culminates in a first cadenza which is a showplace for the varied tessituras of the instrument. Russo understands and revels in those coloristic contrasts throughout the work. As the piece moves into the second theme, his seamless connection of tessituras within the long scalar runs shows his ability to link the different registers without a hitch.

The cantabile second movement again becomes Mozartean in Russo’s hands. The noble theme for horn and clarinet (which allows the piece to become, temporarily, a wind quintet of sorts) is resolved into the repeat of the cantabile. Russo brings the main theme back with great sensitivity, which significantly ennobles this performance of the work.

Rollicking. A Russo specialty; and almost never more apparent than at the beginning of the Allegretto. This movement is perhaps better realized than the others, both in terms of clarinet and surrounding writing, and Russo makes the most of it.

An endless stream. Many of Darius Milhaud’s works begin as if he had picked up where he left off finishing his last work, and the Anime of his Clarinet Concerto is no exception. That said it is a delightful movement, one which partakes of the best qualities of a composer to whom music came as naturally as breathing. Composed in 1946, this movement is replete with echoes of French music from the first half of the twentieth century in its ramblings–from Ravel to Messiaen–but never as serious. Russo understands these ruminations, and heartily follows Milhaud’s wanderings.

The Décide second movement has echoes of the music hall “Les Six”; and like the music of Milhaud and his fellows in the 1920’s has passages by turns bawdy and exquisite. This one, however, is mostly Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, and Russo plays it for all its cafe orchestra worth.

The Lent is the exotic Poulenc of Honoloulou (from his Rapsodie nègre); softly repetitive, it also reminds me of the “dream of Madagascar” atmosphere of Poulenc’s song Paul et Virginie. Russo’s clarinet bridges the gentle gaps within the dream, from distant drums to muted brass, always coloring the moods reflectively and accurately. This is not a movement I wanted to end.

Milhaud was a chronicler of the illustrious period in French music from 1900 to 1950, both as active participant and later as remembrant, and the final Anime returns to the music hall. Here are also echoes of his own “busy” music, the sort of texture Gershwin would borrow for the beginning of American in Paris. Russo’s ruminations have enough “jazz” in them to bring the piece even more to life.

I was fortunate enough to meet Ernst Krenek in the early 1980’s; this last “relic” not only of the early days of twentieth century composition but of the type of severe, formal training that essentially passed away soon after the advent of mid-century Modernism was a formidable figure even in his eighties. The severity and seriousness of his craft is well documented in the Monologue for solo clarinet. In musical movements freely atonal yet written in a dodecaphonic spirit Krenek uses intervallic counterpoint to liberate himself from the sense of underlying harmony, yet simultaneously manages to imply a very strong harmonic structure: no mean feat, and verification of his excellent old-world training. Colors again abound in Russo’s interpretation, one I wish Krenek could have heard.

Schlenck’s Concerto initially reminded me of certain works by Alan Hovhaness. Hovhaness was one of the first Western composers to compose in a truly scalar manner—a trait of Eastern musics in general—and this piece—based on Indian Ragas–does so very deliberately, partaking of the linearity inherent in contemporary set theory. About midway through the movement the linear textures are augmented by chordal blocks reminiscent of Roy Harris—a nice and surprisingly appropriate juxtaposition. The rest of the movement skillfully plays out these opposing textures.

The Allegro is more deliberately polyphonic–and Western—despite the presence of an Indian tala (meter). Near the end, a very Roy Harris style chord progression appears again–obviously Harris is a strong influence on this composer.

The beginning of Bruce Reiprich’s Swans for chamber orchestra brings back some of the exquisite French feel of the Milhaud. Episodic, Takemitsu-like textures follow in a deliberately non-linear manner, reminding me of some of the atmospheric short works of Ives (The Pond). This is nature music, a kind of “maximal minimalism”, in which there is little musical development but much atmosphere—certainly not an inappropriate approach considering that the piece is something of an elegy to the composer’s father. A work worthy of repeated listenings, to best catch nuances missed the first time.

Gregory Hall

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

Composer Profile–Anthony Joseph Lanman

Composer Profile

Anthony Joseph Lanman

The sweeping, overwhelming line. The opening of the second movement of Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto has it; as well as the opening of Anthony Joseph Lanman’s Synaesthesiac for orchestra.  Recurrent waves of sound break relentlessly on the listener in this introduction, continually building to an ultimate climax.  Unlike much contemporary music  Synaesthesiac isgenuinely grounded in the underlying harmony, as generating force; thus it is the harmony one feels first, like a solid foundation, and only as the waves of sound break in different patterns does one become aware of the importance of the linear motion. This stunning opening frames the beginning of Lanman’s recurrent podcast  All The Cool Parts (available on iTunes), and introduces us to the work and personality of this unique composer.  His genuine affability frames a musical mind of rare sensibility.

Tony Lanman is the product of an era of deep uncertainly in classical music, but this fact has not hindered his creativity in the least.  In a time when coherent musical grammar—rules of writing governed as much by the logic of the ear as by theory—is still optional, where outright experiment in composition is still dominant in the minds of many composers, and where what is commonly discussed at concerts is compositional techniques not expression, Tony has succeeded in keeping disciplined expression foremost in his music.  So what is it that fuels Lanman’s music, in my opinion?  That often-overlooked yet critical parameter: harmony.

Harmony is indeed the basis of much of his music, and I have an immediate connection with it as a composer for whom harmony is essentially the core element.  Although devising melodic/motivic material was a large part of J.S. Bach’s art, I tend to feel that he was primarily a harmonic composer, as it was likely working the vertical disposition of those motives which took a greater amount of his time. It is the carefully crafted harmonic frameworks of his pieces which strike this listener first; awareness of the linear craft coming only after the initial impression, as counter-intuitive as that may seem.  Harmony and melody ultimately work together on an equal basis to create music as interesting vertically as it is horizontally.  This balance of elements is also apparent in Tony’s music.

Listen to il dolce stile nuovo, the winner of the 2002 ASCAP/Morton Gould Young Composer Award.  This piece exists  in a realm somewhere between the exquisiteness of Ravel, the ecstasies of Scriabin, and the elemental power of rock ‘n’ roll. It is the sheer sonic beauty of the particular harmonic voicings he uses that strike the listener right from the beginning, and as the main theme enters one becomes aware that the piece is not only grounded harmonically, but melodically; and equally so.  Or Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens from Three Lamentations on the Death of John Dowland.  One hears echoes of Penderecki’s Threnody in the long string cascades; but Tony’s language never puts theory before the aural experience, and the harmony is always firmly grounded in the overtone series.

Lanman’s contrapuntal sensibilities, especially with regard to harmonic and rhythmic textures, show a sophistication which allows each line to be clearly heard, yet form a whole where each segment of the harmony is entirely natural to the piece and not an artificial result of combined counterpoint.  Rhythms, while often quite complex are never deliberately so, and only add to the dramatic tension.  This is a composer who not only thoroughly understands the musical language he has chosen for the piece, but he also feels that language in a fundamental way that makes this music an intellectual, yet above all thoroughly visceral, experience.

Contemporary art music has experienced decreasing relevance to the life of the culture at large for at least fifty years now.  It is a movement without much focus: techniques, styles, come and go as fashionable, and the listener is often forgotten in the fray.  Without the kind of widespread cultural support that art music had in the past, composers and listeners both suffer, and grow increasingly apart.  Without a larger sense of direction, how can this music ever gain widespread appeal again?

Lanman’s music, however, is all about focus; from the searing yet beautiful main motive/melody of il dolce stile nuovo to the aforementioned opening of Synaesthesiac, Tony reminds the listener that the emotion of listening is paramount, no matter what the musical language.  He also proves that the more comfortable a composer is using his musical language—in my opinion this should be a language developed primarily by ear—the closer the emotion will be to the surface.  I have experienced first-hand audience reaction to his works, and I heard and felt an audience involved not in the theory of the music but in the expression, much as art music was experienced in past centuries.

Tony’s music also displays one of the most natural combinations I have heard of two musical forms: rock and classical.  One never feels “this part is classical, this part is rock”, for he lives so naturally in both realms that the ebb and flow of both musics come naturally.  It is this effortless synthesis of elements which contemporary art music needs to survive, and become relevant on a widespread basis—the integration of more modern musics as an organic part of the whole, not merely an addition or an overlay as with so much minimalist and classical-pop music.

Gregory Hall

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

New Works-Lanman, Gregorio, Headrick

Music Review

il dolce stile nuovo for violin, cello, and piano by Anthony Joseph Lanman.   

©2001 Anthony Joseph Lanman

The second time I heard this work was in a car driving up to Crater Lake in Oregon. Already familiar with the piece as the lake came in sight for the first time, the fabulous glacial morning blue color of the lake blended with the sonorous cadences of the main section of il dolce stile nuovo and created for me one of those priceless moments where music and Nature unite.

As a composer, I am jealous of this work.  Jealous perhaps in the best sense, in that I admire the technique and spirit that created it.   Mr. Lanman states in the score that he was influenced by composers and musicians as diverse as Perotin, Corelli, Bach, Schoenberg, and the band Metallica.  However, this diversity of inputs yields a most consistent output.  This is not music of collage or pastiche, but a heartfelt and wholly unified work.

The piece revels in seeming contradictions, yet comes out more unified than most works.  Pop syncopations of the most sophisticated kind make the piece rock, while the ecstatic refinements of the main A sections put the work in a realm somewhere between the exquisitenesses of Ravel and the ecstasies of Scriabin.  Lanman combines the “rock” and “exquisite ecstasies” with complete success, to create a whole I have never experienced before, one which puts me in a unique–and marvelous–place. This is a composer who not only thoroughly understands the musical language he has chosen for the piece, but he also feels that language in a fundamental way that makes this music an intellectual, yet above all thoroughly visceral, experience.  The music is also completely idiomatic to his modal language in melody, harmony, and rhythm.  It is through his heartfelt instincts, and not random experiments in sound, that Lanman has come up with something genuinely “nuovo” in this work.

In this work, writing for all instruments is fascinating and varied.  The improvisatory B section contrasts strongly with the flanking A sections, and allows the violin a carefully controlled chance to sound like a distorting electric guitar by using vibrato from tasto to sul. ponticello positions on the fingerboard. The piano contrasts long-held pedal passages with lengthy toccata-like passages where use of the pedal is minimized.  The instrumental writing throughout is genuinely hypnotic, again in the best sense.

Lanman’s contrapuntal sensibilities, especially with regard to harmonic and rhythmic textures, show a sophistication which allows each line to be clearly heard, yet form a whole where each segment of the harmony is completely natural to the piece and not an artificial result of combined counterpoint.  Rhythms, while often quite complex are never deliberately so, and only add to the dramatic tension.

Mr. Lanman’s self-published manuscripts are a joy to behold in an era where many major publishers do it “on the cheap”, and a separate small study score and recording accompany his amply sized performance editions.

il dolce stile nuovo wasthe winner of the 2002 ASCAP/Morton Gould Young Composer Award.

Gregory Hall

Dona nobis pacem for TTBBB a cappella choir, by Joseph Gregorio.   

©2007 E.C. Schirmer Music Co., catalog #6511; SATB divisi version #6575

In an era of publishing house closed-door policies, E.C.Schirmer is still championing young composers and taking risks to promote their music.  One such case is Dona nobis pacem.  Gregorio was still a student at the San Francisco Conservatory when E.C.Schirmer accepted his score for publication.

Modal writing was sadly neglected in classical music during much of the last century.  “Musical logic” often dictated that the inevitable extension of late common-practice harmony was chromaticism, not modal (as opposed to tonal) diatonicism.  Thus, music like Dona nobis pacem, so deliberate in its use of modal diatonic harmony, has only recently begun to be taken as seriously as the highly chromatic music which was the norm during the last century.

Gregorio’s piece is elemental–simple, in a Mozartean sense–with nary an accidental to mar the beauty of the texture–but rarely a simple triad, either.  This is twenty-first century music in that it is not afraid to be consistently dissonant, and even resolve on dissonances.  However, the sensibility is that of the sixteenth century–all compositional choices are made with the utmost care.  Gregorio approaches his task with the intelligence and integrity of a pre-twentieth century composer. His is largely instinctual music; while beautifully crafted, it has nothing of the contrived about it.  Its consistency in an era of eclecticism is also most admirable.

Although it stands in the tradition of fine small choral works by composers such as Taverner and Pärt, in ways both contrapuntal and harmonic it owes less to the past and more to the twenty-first century, as mentioned before.  The choral works of those composers are often quite conservative harmonically, while Gregorio manages limpidity in a welter of modal dissonance that might become opaque in the hands of a less skilled composer.  This clarity is even more impressive when you consider that the original version was written for male choir.  Because the individual lines are as well-crafted as the whole, the skilled choir that I heard perform on a private recording managed to show the solidity of the linear as well as harmonic writing.  His feeling for modal diatonic harmony is completely natural in this piece, and because consonance and dissonance are in many ways unified in this work, Gregorio points us graciously towards new realms of harmonic development.

Dona nobis pacem won Top Honors at the 2002 “Waging Peace Through Singing” project.

Gregory Hall


 Polyphonic Fantasy for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano by Samuel Headrick.  

©2000 Samuel Headrick

From the standpoint of popularity, minimalism is perhaps the most significant American compositional style of the last half-century.  Previous to that, the most popular style was the “American” style itself, as exemplified by Aaron Copland.  Considering the strength of these two styles, it is a joy to find a piece which combines the two in a seamless, effortless fashion.  Samuel Headrick’s Polyphonic Fantasy is a nod both to the Copland style (specifically his neo-classical masterpiece the Sextet), and the type of “Bach ‘n’ Roll” contrapuntal minimalism practiced by composers like Michael Torke and Graham Fitkin.

One of the most delightful aspects of the piece is the brimming intelligence—Sextet-like–combined with the motoric polyphony of the four-note ostinato, which is exhaustively (but not excessively) exploited throughout. Copland’s Sextet is perhaps the most successful American interpretation of Stravinsky, specifically Stravinsky’s contrapuntal skills with ostinatos, and this fact is not lost on Headrick.  His title is no misnomer, for almost everything in the piece is derived from the four notes of his ostinato.  Beautiful modal dissonances alternate with chromatically colored ones, providing a uniquely twentieth/twenty-first century interpretation of musical tension/resolution. The registers of all instruments are explored to their fullest; but never is the musical sacrificed to the merely virtuosic.  This is an ensemble piece in the best sense of the word.

 All five instruments participate in driving the piece forward by sharing the four-note ostinato. Wonderful idiomatic writing abounds, from gorgeous pastoral work for the winds, brash and wonderful harmonic and rhythmic writing for the piano, and long sustained melodies in the strings; yet each instrument has its chance to “play in” another instrument’s texture at some point.  This is bound to be an audience-pleaser and a fabulous encore, in addition to concert staple.  Like the Lanman, it is intellectual yet visceral, and despite the influences very much its own piece.

This piece is kept on the site; contact information for the composer is available there.

Gregory Hall

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