Louis Karchin: Dark Mountains/Distant Lights

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Composer Louis Karchin releases a collection of chamber works, featuring violinist Miranda Cuckson, pianist Steven Beck, and oboist Jacqueline Leclair. Partially inspired by the iconic romance of Venice, Karchin marries a fascination with the intricacies of subtle hybrid instrumental timbres with a penchant for elegantly articulated structures.


Composer Louis Karchin imbues his music with characteristics that are in dialogue with other disciplines that inspire him -- a rich relationship with poetry, the visual arts, the natural world, and iconic places inform aspects of his writing, from the structural to the gestural level. “Dark Mountains/Distant Lights” is a collection of Karchin’s solos and duos written between the years of 2004 and 2017, and performed here with sensitivity by three of his most frequent collaborators, violinist Miranda Cuckson, pianist Steven Beck, and oboist Jacqueline Leclair.

Stéphane Mallarmé’s early love poem, “Apparition,” serves as a jumping off point for the first track, Dreamscape. It opens with a crystalline, hybrid sonority of a sustained oboe note with a murky violin trill, unfolding in gestures that glisten and evaporate. Throughout, one hears Karchin’s careful attention to timbre and instrumental integration. The climax compresses much of the previously introduced material, before we hear a shrouded barcarole in a nod to Venice, the city of the work’s premiere performance. Dreamscape closes with a lontano statement of the ethereal opening trill motif.

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Rhapsody for violin and piano is a more directional work, loosely divided into three sections: an exposition, a contrasting slower section that builds to a climax with unexpectedly tonal harmonic movement, and a final burst of exuberant arpeggios that closes triumphantly on a major chord. Throughout Rhapsody, Karchin seems to examine his dialogue with the violin sonata tradition, employing momentary unisons and conventional melody and accompaniment roles before giving way to more angular, fragmentary material between the two instruments.

The solo piano work Three Epigrams began as a one movement work, “Celebration,” dedicated to Charles Wuorinen. Annunciatory proclamations suggest a fanfare, garnished by sextuplet flourishes in the high register. The second and third epigrams, as with Dreamscape, conjure Venice, and more specifically two of its most famous artistic figures, Luigi Nono and visual artist Emilio Vedova. “Expressions,” is an atmospheric movement, with haunting resonances and ominous rumblings in the bass. “Upheavals” is inspired by the wild juxtapositions in Vedova’s paintings. Jaunty, disjunct chords and registral leaps punctuate this restless movement.

Dark Mountains/Distant Lights was written for violinist Miranda Cuckson and designed to highlight the virtuosic possibilities of the instrument. Karchin was captivated by an image during the composition of this piece -- the impact of one’s vantage point on the visual perception of mountains and their slopes. The dichotomy between perceiving a mountain from near or far is manifested in the alternation between tasto and ponticello techniques. Violinistic trills, arpeggiation, and passagework fill out this searching solo work. The piece ends with a high register trill fading away to near inaudibility, revealing the wispy sound of the bow gliding over the string. One can almost hear the wind through the mountain treetops.

Lyrics II for solo piano contains two contrasting movements, the first a slow lamentation, and the second more rhythmic and agitated. Karchin writes that his attraction to “lyric” poetry informs the composition of these pieces, specifically the interest in capturing the uniqueness of a specific moment. The opening movement is somber and solitary, whereas the second movement’s punctuated, muted bass notes and insistent alternating chords evoke an abstract image of noble verticalities.

Prayer for solo violin is introspective and reflective, and was written for a concert by the South Korean ensemble, Spectrum Sonori. In Reflection for oboe and violin, the recording ends as it began, with an expansion of the opening compositional idea of a violin trill with a melodic line in the oboe from Dreamscape. Here it is heard as a coda to this thoughtful collection of music, engaged in equal measure with the fine details of musical sound, a narrative approach to structure, and a wealth of extra-musical sources of inspiration.

– D. Lippel

Dreamscape, Rhapsody for violin and piano, Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, Lyrics II, Prayer and Reflection produced and engineered by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Studios, Mt. Vernon, New York

Three Epigrams produced and engineered by Judith Sherman. Engineering assistant: Hsi-Ling Chang; editing assistant: Jeanne Velonis. Recorded in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center, SUNY Purchase, Purchase, New York

Louis Karchin

Over a career spanning more than four decades, composer Louis Karchin has amassed a portfolio of more than 90 compositions, appeared as conductor with numerous ensembles, and co-founded new music groups including the Chamber Players of the League-ISCM, the Orchestra of the League of Composers, the Washington Square Ensemble, and the Harvard Group for New Music. Described by critic Andrew Porter in The New Yorker as a composer of “fearless eloquence,” his works have garnered distinguished honors, including three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three National Endowment for the Arts Awards, and Koussevitzky, Barlow, and Fromm commissions. His first opera, Romulus, was hailed in its Naxos CD debut, as one of the year’s best recordings (Fanfare, 2011) and was a “best of the month” selection of BBC Music Magazine. Earlier, his masque, Orpheus, was singled out as one of the “10 best” new works of 2005 by critic Alex Ross.

Karchin’s music has been performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and Tanglewood, among many venues; notable performing groups and festivals include the Louisville Orchestra, the Ft. Worth Opera, the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Earplay Ensemble of San Francisco, Voices of Change (Dallas, TX), the Etchings Festival (Auvillar, France), the June-in-Buffalo Festival, the Morrison Artist Series (San Francisco), and California Summer Music. Mr. Karchin’s works are published by C. F. Peters Corporation, and the American Composers Alliance, with recordings available on Naxos, Bridge, Albany and New World labels.

Born in Philadelphia in 1951, Karchin studied at the Eastman School of Music and Harvard University. His principal teachers included Samuel Adler, Joseph Schwantner, Fred Lerdahl, and at Tanglewood (where he spent two summers as a Leonard Bernstein Fellow in Composition), Gunther Schuller, and Bruno Maderna. He is Music Director of the Orchestra of the League of Composers, and Professor of Music at New York University.


Jacqueline Leclair

Oboist Jacqueline Leclair is Associate Professor of Oboe at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University. She is a member of Ensemble Signal, and can frequently be heard performing solo and chamber music concerts internationally. Leclair formerly served on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and Mannes College (NYC), and was Assistant Professor of Oboe at Bowling Green State University (Ohio) from 2007 to 2012. During her last two years at BGSU she also served as the Director of the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music.

Summer festivals for which Leclair has served as faculty and/or performer include the Lincoln Center Festival (NYC), Chamber Music Conference of the East (VT/NY), June In Buffalo (NY), Chamber Music Festival of Aguascalientes (Mexico), East/West Festival (Kazan Tatarstan) and the Sebago Music Festival (ME), among others.

In addition to performing a variety of classical and other musics, Leclair specializes in the study and performance of new music. She has premiered many works, and regularly presents classes in contemporary music and its techniques at schools such as UCLA, the Eastman School of Music, Brigham Young University, The North Carolina School for the Arts, and University of California San Diego.

Leclair has recorded for Nonesuch, CRI, Koch, Neuma, Deutsche Grammophon, and CBS Masterworks, receiving critical acclaim in particular for her premiere recording of Roger Reynolds’ Summer Island. Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIIa Supplementary Edition by Jacqueline Leclair is published by Universal Edition, Vienna; and Leclair's recording of the piece is on the Mode Records collection of all Berio Sequenze and other solo works.

The New York Times has reviewed Leclair's performances as "astonishing" and as having "electrifying agility"; and the New Yorker has referred to her as "lively" and "wonderful." Leclair studied with Richard Killmer and Ronald Roseman at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester and SUNY Stony Brook, earning a Bachelor of Music, Master of Music, and Doctor of Musical Arts.


Miranda Cuckson

Violinist Miranda Cuckson has combined a deep background in the classical repertoire with an adventurous and probing spirit to become an acclaimed, in-demand performer of music new and old. She performs worldwide as soloist and chamber musician, at venues including the Berlin Philharmonie, Carnegie Hall, Teatro Colón, Suntory Hall, Library of Congress, 92nd Street Y, Guggenheim Museum, Monday Evening Concerts in LA, and the Marlboro, Bard, Lincoln Center, West Cork, Bridgehampton, Music Mountain, Portland and Bodensee festivals.

She made her Carnegie Hall debut playing Piston’s concerto with the American Symphony Orchestra. Her recent performances include premiering a violin concerto written for her by Georg Friedrich Haas, in Tokyo, Stuttgart and Porto, the New York premiere of Michael Hersch’s concerto, and recent recitals at the Metropolitan Museum, Miller Theatre, Strathmore and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music.

Her discography includes, most recently, violin music of Wolpe, Carter and Ferneyhough (Urlicht), and Bartók, Schnittke and Lutoslawski (ECM Records). The New York Times named her recording of Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura a Best Classical Recording of 2012. Her eleven lauded albums also feature the Korngold and Ponce concertos and music by Finney, Shapey, Martino, Sessions, Eckardt, Hersch, Xenakis, Glass, Mumford, Fujikura and more.

She is director of the non-profit Nunc, a member of collectives AMOC and counter)induction, and a performer and advisory council member at National Sawdust. She studied at The Juilliard School, where she received her doctorate and the Presser Award, and she teaches at Mannes College.



Steven Beck

Pianist Steven Beck continues to gather wide acclaim for his performances and recordings. Recent career highlights include performances of Beethoven’s variations and bagatelles at Bargemusic, a venue where he first performed a complete Beethoven sonata cycle. In addition, this season he performs with the Westchester Philharmonic and the Alabama Symphony.

An esteemed performer of new music, he has worked with Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, Charles Wuorinen, George Crumb, George Perle, and Fred Lerdahl, and performed with ensembles such as Speculum Musicae and the New York New Music Ensemble. He is a core member of the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Knights, and the Talea Ensemble. He is also a member of Quattro Mani, a piano duo specializing in contemporary music.

Mr. Beck’s discography includes Peter Lieberson's third piano concerto (for Bridge Records) and a recording of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto on Albany Records. He is on the faculty of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival.





There is something of a consensus from Fanfare reviewers that Louis Karchin is something of an unrecognized jewel of a composer, and I am happy to add my voice to the chorus. We are in distinctly Modernist territory here (Karchin’s teachers include Fred Lerdahl, Gunther Schuller, and Bruno Maderna); and yet, it is Karchin’s ear that stops this from being objectivist and forbidding. Take the very first sonority of Dreamscape (2016) for oboe and violin, a melding of high oboe with a violin tremolo between written pitch and the harmonic two octaves and a fifth above. It is otherworldly, and clearly challenging for the performers; it is a measure of Jacqueline Leclair and Miranda Cuckson’s control over their instruments that the sound field is so convincingly conjured. There is playfulness here, too, in amongst the quarter-tones and the multiphonics. The work is a response to Mallarmé’s poem “Apparition” (a love poem), and there is no doubting that Karchin explores the two instrument’s relationship while, towards the end, inserting a barcarolle, acknowledging the place of the work’s premiere (Venice).

Dating from over a decade earlier (2005), the Rhapsody for Violin and Piano plays with our perceptions of tonality, placing a passage that clearly references tonal structures at the work’s center (with a recollection at the close that brings the piece to rest). Again, there is a playful element to this music, with instruments chasing each other like over-dissonanced kittens; but there is real beauty, too. Credit should go especially to Miranda Cuckson’s expressive and consistently accurate playing.

It is good to hear Steven Beck solo in the Three Epigrams (2008), the first movement of which, “Celebration,” was originally a stand-alone piece for Charles Wuorinen’s 70th birthday; the second and third movements reference Luigi Nono and the visual artist Emilo Vedova (who himself collaborated with Nono). The second movement’s title, “Expressions,” echoes Nono’s Due Espressioni and is an exercise in sonic beauty, Beck offers up a crystalline sound; the elusive finale, “Upheavals,” with its contrasting gestures of granite and air inspired by Vedova’s paintings, is similarly convincing.

In the lineage of Roger Sessions’s Sonata for Solo Violin and Donald Martino’s Fantasy-Variations is Karchin’s Dark Mountains/Distant Lights (2016). Inspired by the Watchung Mountains near the composer’s home in New Jersey, the piece plays with perceptions of near and far; Karchin even illustrates in music how images fleetingly appear, only to disappear again. This is a transfixing performance from Cuckson.

By the time we get to Lyrics II, the ear has become accustomed to the expressivity of Karchin’s writing, both on vertical and horizontal axes. There are two sections to the piece, the first formed of elongated, restful lines, the second decidedly more agitated (if stopping short of traumatized). The two shorter pieces the close the disc work well together, and also reintroduce the oboe’s voice in Reflection, thus bookending the disc with this instrument. First, though, there come Prayer for solo violin of 2004, written at the time for a festival whose subject was world peace (including for its venue, South Korea). The solo lines seem to invite meditation—reflection on our actions as a human race, perhaps. Talking of reflection, the oboe and violin piece named Reflection (2017) begins with a tremolo gesture that links back to the opening of Dreamscape. The sheer resonance between Leclair (on this outing one of the finest, most musical of oboists around) and Cuckson is remarkable.

Detailed booklet notes by the composer himself round off a splendid release. In terms of recording, everything is perfectly judged, including perspective. I’m going to balance the symmetry of the disc’s program with a symmetry of my own in this review and remark, once more, that Louis Karchin’s talent clearly requires wider acknowledgement.

— Colin Clarke, 1.26.2021



Considering the "shift" described by Phillips, does the world actually need another collection of modernist chamber works by a white male composer in his 60's who has spent most of his career in academia? The only answer I will give to that is to say that as much as I demand more diverse voices in programming, isn't reducing people to their demographic part of the problem? Either way, this music is exquisite and deserves to be heard. "Dark Mountains" presents premiere recordings of seven chamber works written by Karchin between 2004 and 2017, in stunning sound and in brilliant performances by Jacqueline Leclair (oboe), Miranda Cuckson (violin) and Steven Beck (piano). Reading his liner notes is also worth the price of admission as he eloquently describes the two ends of his process, from being inspired by poetry or other artworks to collaborating closely with musicians to realize the sounds he's hearing in his head. And now that he's put these alternately tart and rhapsodic pieces out into the world, they are available to inspire others.

— Jeremy Shatan, 4.01.2019


The Art Music Lounge

[edited for length]

American composer Louis Karchin has written more than 90 pieces, appeared as conductor with several ensembles, and co-founded new music groups including the Chamber Players of the League-ISCM, the Orchestra of the League of Composers, the Washington Square Ensemble, and the Harvard Group for New Music. This CD spotlights his chamber music, most of it featuring young violinist Miranda Cuckson and some of it pianist Steven Beck.

Dreamscape opens with the oboe playing long-held notes over violin tremolos, then slowly moves into faster, somewhat edgier themes with a bitonal base. The music shifts tempi and moods back and forth, weaving a strange tapestry through the mind. Upper harmonics are used as thematic and development material and the music jumps around skittishly with frequent long pauses, yet always with some definite form behind it.

The Rhapsody for violin and piano also contains a skittish restlessness behind it; in terms of mood, it is, to my ears, much more like an active night of bad fairies than a rhapsody in the strict sense of the term, with dark-sounding piano chords leading the edgy, nervous-sounding violin, but good music nonetheless. When the piano gets his own solo, some of the edginess is mellowed, leading to soft, spaced-out chords, which also temporarily tames the violin. Then the tempo increases again, the violin plays rapid, serrated figures, and the harmony finally comes together in a tonal manner, though no less edgy and unsettled in mood before returning to bitonality. This frenetic “rhapsody” thus moves towards its conclusion, finally resolving itself once again in Eb major.

Prayer for solo violin is more lyrical than usual for Karchin, using a broad, rather slow melodic line written in his usual bitonal fashion. Cuckson plays this with particularly good phrasing and feeling, and to a certain extent this work slightly breaks the mold of the others. So, too, does Reflection, with which this recital ends. This work is primarily tonal and, in places, quite lovely in the modern sense, meaning emotion without sentimentality. Yet Karchin again gives the violinist widely-spaced intervals to play, albeit in slower tempi, and the interplay of violin and oboe is quite interesting, sometimes giving the lyric line to the reed instrument while the violin flutters above.

An interesting album, then, with some very fine pieces in it.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

— Lynn René Bayley, 3.21.2019


Avant Music News

In the liner note to Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, an album of seven new and recent compositions of his, Louis Karchin describes one of the pieces as having been inspired by lyric poetry’s capacity to convey the moods and emotional states of an individual sensibility. In fact many of the other works in the collection are lyrical not only in the sense Karchin describes, but also in the original sense of something meant to be sung. This should come as no surprise, given the substantial amount of vocal music, including the opera Jane Eyre, that Karchin has written.

The point of departure for Karchin’s musical vocabulary is the pitch-oriented serial and post-serial composition of the last century. His lines tend toward the complex and highly chromatic, and are characterized by sudden turns and staggering leaps and falls. This is the case for Rhapsody (2005/2011), a work for violin and piano that features a tonally convoluted, register-spanning violin line. Nevertheless, the line has a continuity and phrasing that recall the human voice, and it isn’t hard to imagine it as an aria for soprano. It’s a virtuoso piece breathtakingly played by violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Steven Beck.

In addition to her affecting performance on the austerely beautiful Prayer (2004) for solo violin, Cuckson has two duets with oboist Jacqueline Leclair: 2016’s Dreamscape, and 2017’s Reflections. Both are challenging works that integrate extended techniques—multiphonics for oboe, unorthodox bowings for violin—with more conventionally played, though still demanding, passages. Karchin’s decision to pair oboe and violin, whose timbres contrast in the lower registers but tend to converge in the upper registers, is inspired.

Lyrics II (2014)—the piece Karchin was referring to in the liner note—is a two-part composition for solo piano that does indeed evoke the dynamic arc of emotional cycles.

— Daniel Barbiero, 8.05.2019


Midwest Record

The funny thing about some of these contemporary classical cats is that they can blossom in obscurity for years which is why it's so important for the right ones to get the largesse of grants and commissions. Compositions that range from 2004 to 2017, Karchin rounds up some of his usual suspects for some left leaning impressionistic tunes that aren't afraid to go where angels fear to tread. You may well draw your own conclusions as to what is being represented here, but the wheels never roll off and the scope of the playing is quite cinematic. Almost like listening to instrumental music that feels literary, this is a nice mind blower for the open eared looking for that new kick.

— Chris Spector, 3.26.2019



It is not only the young avant-garde, preoccupied with electronics and computers and with extending the range of familiar instruments, that seems less than focused on reaching out beyond a core audience. Highly experienced composers such as Louis Karchin (born 1951) seem to share much of the same temperament, even when using only traditional acoustic instruments. A recent New Focus Recordings release of Karchin’s chamber music includes seven works, two for oboe and violin and the others only for piano and/or violin. Again and again, though, Karchin seems to strive for something beyond music itself, seeking to turn notes into illustrative materials and giving performers a rationale – indeed, a requirement – to push themselves and their instruments beyond the sorts of sounds for which oboe, piano and violin were designed. There is nothing at all wrong with this and, indeed, nothing uncommon about it. But Karchin’s works on this CD, all written between 2004 and 2017, repeatedly hint that the composer could reach beyond a core group of listeners should he so choose – but he does not choose to do so. Thus, Dreamscape and Reflection, the two oboe-and-violin works, revel in violin harmonics and oboe techniques that draw attention to themselves – to how the notes are being played rather than to what they are trying to convey. The titles do not reflect anything particular about the works’ content – indeed, no title on this disc is especially descriptive. Rhapsody, for violin and piano, is certainly not rhapsodic, being jittery and rather scattered-sounding. Dark Mountains/Distant Lights, for solo violin, is insistently virtuosic without being in any way reflective of its titular visual inspiration. Prayer, also for solo violin, has little of the spiritual about it, being more concerned with the heights of the violin’s range than the heights of feeling to which spiritual belief is capable of raising people. The remaining works on the disc are for solo piano. Three Epigrams are epigrammatic enough, each lasting about three-and-a-half minutes, but are not at all reflective of their titles: “Celebration,” “Expressions,” and “Upheavals.” It is necessary to know the works’ inspiration to connect the music with the response it is supposed to provoke – to know, for instance, that “Expressions” is supposed to be a tribute to composer Luigi Nono, and to be familiar enough with Nono’s work to see how Karchin interprets and responds to it. Like so many other modern composers, Karchin insists that listeners do their homework if they are to comprehend his pieces properly; this imposes a kind of self-limitation on the music, since it is scarcely likely that listeners not already enamored of Karchin’s work will pre-invest their time in exploring its reasons for being. Lyrics II consists of two short movements that contrast comparatively slow and serious material with comparatively more-agitated music – without either movement ever delving into anything approaching poetic or sung lyrics or, for that matter, musical lyricism. Karchin’s music is clearly constructed with care: this composer knows what he wants performers to do and how he wants them to interact. But like so many other contemporary composers, Karchin seems much less concerned with what he wants from any potential audience – beyond a presumed group of listeners already familiar with and engaged by his music.

— Mark Estren, 12.11.2020

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