The City of Tomorrow releases Blow, a collection of three works for wind quintet, anchored by the premiere of a multi-movement work written for them by Hannah Lash. Guided by their virtuosity and commitment to polished interpretation, the album is an exploration of finely crafted compositions that take advantage of the rich colors of the instrumentation in all of its permutations.
Leander and HeroHannah Lash
|02||I. Prelude: The Cliffs|
I. Prelude: The Cliffs
|03||II. Courting Dance: Slow and Ancient|
II. Courting Dance: Slow and Ancient
|05||IV. First Storm|
IV. First Storm
|06||V. Hero and Leander|
V. Hero and Leander
|07||VI. Interlude: away from the rocks|
VI. Interlude: away from the rocks
|08||VII. The Storm; Leander Does Not Return to the Nest|
VII. The Storm; Leander Does Not Return to the Nest
|09||VIII. Hero Finds Leander’s Body and Will Not Leave His Side|
VIII. Hero Finds Leander’s Body and Will Not Leave His Side
|10||IX. Postlude: The Cliffs|
IX. Postlude: The Cliffs
Wind quintet The City of Tomorrow features adventurous and experimental music in their programming, bringing instrumental virtuosity and an openness to extra-musical components to their performances. The centerpiece on Blow is an ambitious, newly commissioned work for the ensemble by Hannah Lash, bookended by riveting pieces by Franco Donatoni and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Running through the repertoire is a thread of the collective and the individual, as each piece highlights soloists in the ensemble along with a chorus of ensemble textures. The album highlights the ensemble’s unified interpretative vision and powerful performing style.
Donatoni’s title work is emblematic of his idiosyncratic style. Prizing irregular approaches to phrase development, off-kilter rhythms, and repetition that revels in deconstruction, Donatoni’s music percolates with the energy of an unpredictable creature. After an introduction that presents some of the musical building blocks of the piece, the flute takes a lead role, playing darting figures, while the other winds punctuate fragments of those lines with accented chords. As the piece evolves, different instruments assume a similar primary role, establishing a quasi-antagonistic relationship between soloist and group that facilitates Donatoni’s mercurial compositional personality. Much of the material explored in the solo parts is non-idiomatic, adding another dimension of tension to an already taut texture. The work ends with an uncompromising thirteen second non-diminuendo tutti chord, a static yet charged moment in a perpetually active piece.Read More
Hannah Lash’s Leander and Hero was commissioned by The City of Tomorrow to address an apocalyptic theme in immediate terms. Lash chose climate change as her source of inspiration, and used the Greek myth describing a lover swimming across a body of water to see his love, only to be felled by a vicious storm. Lash humanizes the enormity of the climate crisis through the violent storm that claims Leander’s life, using a time honored narrative technique of expressing universal trauma through the tale of individual figures. Depicting the two lovers as birds within the program of the piece, the piccolo and E-flat clarinet assume the roles of the aviary protagonists, playing alone, as a duo, or allowing the rest of the ensemble to play as a sort of Greek chorus. A flighty ascending line becomes a recurring motive and expresses hope at reunion in the opening movement. The second, “Courting Dance,” is cautious, reflecting uncertainty and foreboding. In “Flocking” we hear the swooping nervousness of birds before a storm. “First Storm” gives us that event after all, as a duo dialogue between flute and clarinet. In “Hero and Leander,” we hear a chorale texture of somber harmonies underneath a polytonal melody in unison, a poignant representation of the divergence between the lovers aspirations and the impending reality. Uneasiness accumulates in “Interlude: away from the rocks,” as short scalar bursts intensify towards the end of the movement. Closely spaced intervals clash against each other in the opening to “The Storm; Leander Does Not Return to the Nest,” a movement that seems to view the storm from afar with a sense of dread. Lash encapsulates Hero’s reluctant acceptance of her lover’s passing in the eighth movement, where the piccolo plays halting figures over an ominous chord progression in the ensemble. In the final “Postlude: The Cliffs” we hear the same music that opened the set, but here the optimism of the ascending material is snuffed out by ominous chords. Lash beautifully captures the trepidation and fear surrounding the coming crisis through this programmatic work.
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Memoria was composed for the 20th anniversary of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. Salonen used the opportunity to engage with the nature of memory, both of the history of an ensemble whose founding he was involved with as well as earlier works he had written, specifically an unpublished piece, Mimo. The opening section of the work searches for cohesion amongst the instruments, as alto flute and horn play soloist lines over a murmuring texture. The ensemble builds up a collective unity, emerging into flowing, divertimento style material that uses accents and uneven phrase groupings to propel the rhythmic direction of the music forward. The final section of the work opens up into a chorale, the ensemble weaving along through otherworldly harmonies that relish the unique hybrid timbre of this instrumentation.
The City of Tomorrow throughout performs with understated brilliance and command, calling our attention to the scores themselves. Their curation highlights a central theme in small ensemble writing — the dichotomy between the parts and the whole — and does so through three works which manage to be simultaneously crystal clear in the compositional intent and intriguingly mysterious in their aesthetic depth.
– Dan Lippel
Recorded August 2018 at the University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee
Producers: Stuart Breczinski & Jeffrey Means
Recording, Editing, & Mixing Engineer: Stuart Breczinski
Mastering: Ryan Streber
Design & Layout: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Photo by Pagie Page on Unsplash.com
Special Thanks to:
The University of Memphis, Brandon Doggett and the Overton High School Band Program, Jeff Means, and Dan Gray
Leander and Hero was commissioned by The City of Tomorrow through the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.
The City of Tomorrow is an experimental wind quintet with a fearless aesthetic and a commitment to 21st-century music. The quintet often uses electronics, unusual lighting, and creative, theatrical, and ritualistic movements in their concerts. The City of Tomorrow continues to commission new works and encourage composition by a variety of voices for the wind quintet. Members are based in New York, Boston, and Memphis and are in demand as new music specialists, curators, collaborators, and teachers.https://www.thecityoftomorrow.org/
The City of Tomorrow is a standard wind quintet (Elise Blatchford, flute and piccolo; Stuart Breczinski, oboe and English horn; Rane Moore, B-flat and E-flat clarinets; Nanci Belmont, bassoon and contrabassoon; Leander Star, French horn) that wants to do nonstandard things. They hail from New York, Boston, and Memphis, and their specialties include commissions, multimedia projects, ritualistic staging, and electronics — things that 21st-century groups increasingly like to do.
Their new album, Blow (New Focus Recordings), though, is strictly audio with acoustical instruments — and the one group commission on hand, Hannah Lash’s Leander and Hero (2015), needs a verbal explanation to go along with the music. There is an agenda at work. Lash uses the Greek legend of Leander and Hero as a parable to present how climate change will bring on an apocalypse that has dire consequences for ordinary personal relationships. The lovers take the form of a pair of migratory birds represented by a piccolo and E-flat clarinet while the other instruments act as — of course — a Greek chorus.
There are instructions in the score in which performers are supposed to create a soft whistling effect by blowing into the mouth of another performer (tellingly, this was recorded in 2018 well ahead of the pandemic). It’s supposed to represent the risks we take in intimate relationships — and after what we’ve all been through, I can’t imagine this instruction being observed live even with fully vaccinated wind players.
Ultimately, it’s a rather pensive piece, easy on the ears, devoid of drama — even the section labeled “The Storm” is anything but turbulent — and not very absorbing if you were listening casually, unaware of the composer’s agenda.
Franco Donatoni’s Blow (1989) proceeds in fragments, with solo instruments taking turns trying to stand up to the rest of the gang who admonish, ridicule, and tiptoe around them in a dissonant language with no steady rhythm. Toward the close, there are some sustained low-key jeering and staccato taunts, with instructions for the last squalling chord to be held for exactly 13 seconds — which The City of Tomorrow faithfully observes.
One of Donatoni’s more renowned students, the San Francisco Symphony’s Esa-Pekka Salonen, is the composer of the album’s final — and best — composition, Memoria. The work has a convoluted history. The musical ideas came from Mimo, a piece that Salonen wrote as a young European avant-garde loyalist in Helsinki in 1982 and has since withdrawn. Two decades later while in Los Angeles (2003), Salonen fashioned a completely new piece out of the material, and it bears the stamp of the warmer, less doctrinaire composer who allowed L.A. to shape him.
From a subdued opening, a gently playful wind quintet emerges in a netherworld between a defined tonality and not, much like the orchestral music he was composing at the time. The complex music in the center doesn’t sound at all easy to play, but the accomplished fivesome doesn’t bat an eye. The last section — set off from the rest of the work by a long pause — suggests the title, a dour chorale in memory of Luciano Berio, who had just passed away that year.
Blow’s cover art is drolly humorous at first glance — a handful of wind turbines in air-polluted twilight. But is it a joke, or is it a serious statement about humanity facing its sunset years as fossil fuels heat up the planet? Or is it hope that this is the dawn of an age of renewable energy? You decide.
— Richard S. Ginell, 7.19.2021
The wind quintet The City Of Tomorrow bring us a trio of works on the appropriately titled Blow, where oboe, horns, bassoon and many other woodwinds help cultivate rich and animated landscapes of exploratory and memorable song craft.
Franco Donatoni’s “Blow” leads the listen with much emphasis on flute as an unpredictable patterns of off-kilter rhythm, strategic repetition and supporting roles from the other woodwinds add much charm to the energetic textures.
The middle portion belongs to Hannah Lash and her 9 movement piece, “Leander And Hero”. Initially bare and dreamy, the E-flat clarinet, flute and piccolo interact in ways that are playful, even furious, in their dynamic beauty, while also retreating to calm moments, as well as ominous flashes of darker waves.
Esa-Pekka Salonen finishes the listen with “Memoria”, where one 15 minute piece unfolds with alto flute and horns dancing around one another amid solos, clever interplay and even finishes on a memorable chorale that puts a firm exclamation point on the affair.
Elise Blatchford, Stuart Breczinski, Rane Moore, Nanci Belmont and Leander Star, i.e. The City Of Tomorrow, execute a tremendous amount of virtuosity here, and their experimental vision certainly puts them in a league all their own, which, of course, we’re all better off for.
— Tom Haugen, 7.06.2021
The visionary element intimated by the name The City of Tomorrow isn't reflected in its instrumental makeup but rather the material the group performs. Comprised of Elise Blatchford (flute, piccolo), Stuart Breczinski (oboe, English horn), Rane Moore (clarinets), Nanci Belmont (bassoons), and Leander Star (horn), the wind quintet shows itself to be determinedly forward-thinking on Blow. Though electronics and theatrical treatments often figure into The City of Tomorrow's live presentation, the playing on the release is purely acoustic, though no less gripping for being so.
To begin, Blow is structurally enticing in the way it frames a multi-part setting by Hannah Lash (b. 1981) with two single-movement pieces by Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) and Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958). Her riveting Leander and Hero is all the more special for being the premiere of a newly commissioned work for the group. Adding to the recording's appeal, the pieces allow soloists to shine; further to that, the group's size allows for both a rich ensemble sound to result but one not so large that clarity of expression is compromised. Lash's in particular is designed with individual voices in mind when the piccolo and E-flat clarinet are accorded the central roles. With five instruments only in play, the virtuosity of each member is able to be better appreciated as well.
From the start, Donatoni's title work arrests the ear with vitality and unpredictability, as well as for how it positions voices in oppositional, even confrontational relationships. Seeming battle lines are drawn between instruments as the members lurk stealthily through a tension-filled soundfield. The music percolates anxiously as the flute darts serpent-like through a staccato field of wind accents. As the piece progresses, different instruments take the lead, in each case the soloist advancing rapidly against a backdrop that mutates as quickly. The energy level never dissipates for thirteen minutes until a final, long-held chord brings the piece to a charged resolution.
Tasked by the group to compose a work with an apocalyptic theme, Lash chose climate change and the Greek tale of Leander and Hero as a means by which to ground the theme in relatable terms. In the myth, Leander attempts to swim across the Hellespont to be with his love Hero, only to find himself thwarted by Poseidon and a vicious storm. Lash amends the tale, however, to have the protagonists depicted as birds swept up by swift winds, with the aviary roles enacted by Blatchford's piccolo and Moore's E-flat clarinet; the crushing effects of climate change are dramatized even more by using a vulnerable species such as birds as the victims. Yet while the subject matter is apocalyptic, the music itself is often delicate and intimate, especially when solo and duo passages appear alongside full group episodes. “Prelude: The Cliffs,” for instance, follows solo voicings by the piccolo, its plaintive expression like a lover yearning for its partner, with repetitions of its ascending melody by the clarinet.
The graceful intertwining of winds continues in the subdued “Courting Dance: Slow and Ancient” before “Flocking” evokes the frantic movements of birds anticipating a storm. An engrossing dialogue between the central actors occurs during “First Storm,” after which melancholy permeates “Hero and Leander” as the two gradually come to realize the impossiblity of their union. Tension intensifies during the opening of “The Storm; Leander Does Not Return to the Nest,” and dread signaling Hero's awareness of Leander's passing emerges too when the leads' haunting lines appear amidst ominous chord progressions. A slowed tempo, funereal tone, and sparse arrangement prove fitting choices for “Hero Finds Leander's Body and Will Not Leave His Side” before a (slightly darkened) reiteration of the opening material in “Postlude: The Cliffs” lends the work a structural soundness.
Though Salonen composed Memoria as a gift to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra (he being one of its founders), the fifteen-minute piece sounds tailor-made for The City of Tomorrow. Of the three works featured on the release, Salonen's elegant creation feels most like a natural extension of twentieth-century writing. Rather than soloists extricating themselves from the ensemble, the music has it functioning more as a single entity working with common purpose and towards a shared goal. Constantly pushing forward, the music unfolds in an agile, polyphonic flow of interlacing patterns, the listener's senses never less than fully engaged, until a solemn chorale arrests the momentum for a satisfying close.
The ensemble's commitment to twentieth-century music is commendable, especially when The City of Tomorrow could have played it safer with a set-list of established pieces by the likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Certainly Lash's star continues to rise, based on the attention her work has received in recent years; in 2019, for example, JACK Quartet issued an entire album of her works on New Focus Recordings called Filigree. The release of Blow should continue to bring attention to her as well as shine deserved light on Donatoni, Salonen, and, of course, the group itself.
— Ron Schepper, 8.16.2021
The City of Tomorrow is a woodwind quintet dedicated to 20/21 music, particularly compositions that explore environmental themes. They first convened to play the title work on this recording. Blow, by Franco Donatoni, is a tour de force for woodwinds. In addition to the obvious association with embouchures, the piece also explores the qualities of wind, from a soothing breeze to gusts to gale force. The use of counterpoint in polyrhythms reminds one of the formidable craft Donatoni possessed – and expected of the musicians who play Blow. The confluence of “wind painting” and proportional imitation, as well as the piece’s relentless energy, are thrilling in City of Tomorrow’s authoritative performance.
Hero and Leander, by Hannah Lash, also explores an environmental theme, if somewhat obliquely. The Greek myth involves Leander swimming the sea each night to reunite with Hero, only to be taken away by Poseidon in a vicious storm. In the wake of Tropical Storm Henri, and all the other hurricanes yet to come as climate change bears down on coastal communities, the piece has psychological resonances well beyond the archetypal tale of unrequited love. Hero and Leander is a nine-movement suite both varied in texture and harmony and unified by recurrent use of birdsong (played in piccolo and e-flat clarinet) and Poseidon’s heavy weather. Unlike Donatoni, Lash takes her time revealing the tale, with the calm before the storm just as emphasized as the lovers being kept apart. The last three movements bring Stravinskyian dissonances and clipped utterances (there are connections to his Oedipus) and poignant stillness to the depiction of Hero’s grief at finding Leander’s body.
In 2003, Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote a piece dedicated to the memory of Luciano Berio: Memoria. It was premiered alongside Laborintus 2, Berio’s own work dealing with memory. Beginning with heterophonic overlap and moving to a main section of vivacious rhythms, the short motifs and shifting meters suggest Stravinsky. Later there is another Stravinsky connection in Memoria. The finale consists of chorales that recall the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Salonen manages to channel two great composers of the twentieth century while imposing his own kinetic spin on the proceedings. Once again, City of Tomorrow impresses with its dextrous delivery and the silvery tone of its soloists. Recommended.
— Christian Carey
Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) with his fifteen-minute composition, Blow, is the name-giver for this CD, which also contains the world premiere recording of Leander and Hero by American composer Hannah Lash and Memoria by the well-known Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Wind quintet The City of Tomorrow is the real hero of this album. Its five musicians are Elise Blatchford, flute & piccolo, Stuart Bretzinski, oboe & English horn, Rane Moore, clarinet & E♭ clarinet, Nanci Belmont, bassoon & contrabassoon, and Leander Star, horn.
That is the current roster. Unfortunately the group has changed a lot in the course of the years it has been in existence. That’s nothing new in the world of chamber music ensembles which simply cannot have enough occasions to perform in a stable configuration, but certainly not a good thing long term.
All of these musicians are genuinely and profoundly talented, enthusiastic and delivering a quality which can be easily called outstanding. The individual musicians are already spectacular in all the instruments they play. It is not to be taken for granted to have, for example, a wonderful oboe player who is also capable to play English horn so well, the same as for a good clarinet player to be in full command of such a tricky instrument like the small E-flat clarinet which requires a completely different way of producing sound. But with these musicians, all of that seems easy. All is perfectly intonated and all registers equally calibrated.
If this would be not enough they have also many ensemble playing qualities which are really breathtaking. The dynamic range is rich and natural, never forced or too shy. The rhythmic precision is absolute. The breathing is that of a group perfectly accustomed to playing together, even when sometimes too audible – my only negative remark on the otherwise well-done work of sound engineering.
This is a good thing in order to enjoy a repertoire that is otherwise not very easy to listen to.
The most original work of the CD is definitely that of Esa-Pekka Salonen. The great Finnish maestro logically knows his instruments far too well to commit some false ingenuity or ask the impossible. In an interview he declared that writing music “against” the character of a single instrument is the most stupid thing a composer can do. In his opinion, using the specific qualities of a player who spent thousands and thousands of hours practicing certain fine details is far more suitable than asking him to denature this sound only to obtain a moment of strange effect without any need for this in the overall picture.
How not to agree with such an opinion? In fact his work is pretty traditional, sometimes in its structure recalling even the Parisian period between the two world wars. It is playful, very suitable for woodwinds and never boring. Esa-Pekka Salonen is a student of Donatoni, but at the same time well distant from the style of his teacher. Strangely, the more modern the music is in terms of the year of composition more it dissociates itself from the Darmstadt School of the fifties, which is definitely more dissonant and seems to have finished its appeal to new generations.
The composition ends with a sort of choral mourning, intended to be a homage to composer Luciano Berio. To be honest, the position of this section at the end of a very scintillating and logically built work is a questionable one.
As said, Blow is the work of Franco Donatoni which opens the CD. It was written in 1989 and so it belongs to the last, personally unfortunate period of the composer. Looking at the score guarantees quite a shock: one is faced with the specter of super-complicated rhythmic substance, most of it probably not necessary, but exploited to look nice on paper. Donatoni, together with other Italian composers of the Darmstadt school like Maderna or Berio, is a typical product of this particular time and, to say it straightforwardly, very difficult to distinguish from other composers within this era.
There certainly is a lot of brio, at least in this rendering, which saves a little the otherwise total absence of any invention, harmony or even rhythm. This later is usually unsteady, changing every bar, contributing to the overall impression of chaotic, magmatic overflowing material, which after a while discourages most listeners.
Donatoni was a prolific teacher and many known composers have studied with him. He was also a very sick man, suffering all his life from depression and later of diabetes. His last work, which he was able only to dictate to his pupils due to his nearly complete inability to move, was dedicated to his most famous student Esa-Pekka Salonen. Entitled ESA, it is one of his most significant works for a symphonic orchestra.
Leander and Hero by Hannah Lash is the centerpiece of the CD and also the longest work. It is divided into nine parts with the following titles:
The programmatic content refers to a story freely inspired by a Greek myth, but tailored to suit the needs of Ms. Lash to build an environmental drama. To what degree this story is reflected by the music contents every listener will have to answer for himself. The nine sections, between three to five minutes long, try to build a drama, but despite the interesting quick passages of, for example, the third part, “Flocking,” the rest is simply monotonous and does not use the specific qualities of a wind quintet.
It is extremely tricky to write original music for five wind instruments, where the palette is forcefully limited. It is even more complicated when imagining two instruments as soloists reduces the rest of the group to a sort of Greek lamenting chorus, as in the intentions of Ms. Lash. When measured against the richness of previous composers, especially the French ones of the 1920s-40s this music simply lacks color.
What can be said about the group of young musicians? They certainly have great qualities, far above the average wind quintet of today, and if they manage to stay united in the same formation at least for the next few years, maybe playing some older music too, this could bring them to raise their artistry even higher.
— Giorgio Koukl, 6.21.2021
It’s rather sad that the name of this modern-music chamber ensemble is The City of Tomorrow, because it is already 2021 and playing modern classical music on a regular basis is still not the wave of the present. I fear, in fact, that it shall forever be “tomorrow,” a tomorrow that never comes…sort of like the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. “It’s always jam yesterday and jam tomorrow,” she said, “but never jam today.” The classical establishment here in the 21st century is still running on a 75-yeear-model in which “modern” works means Debussy, Ravel, Koechlin, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Bartók, Enescu and their contemporaries but only a very little Stravinsky and even less Schoenberg. Getting up to speed with a composer as strange as Franco Donatoni, who died 21 years ago at the age of 73, is still an uphill battle.
And yes, Donatoni’s Blow is just as strange as his other music: fragmented into little bits and shards of music, edgy but also with a sense of humor which most modern music does not have. The liner notes indicate that “the horn seems to be the arbiter of disputes between various solo instruments versus the rest of the group.” The music moves quickly, with stiff rhythms played in an asymmetrical meter; tonality is out of the question except, strangely enough, for a few brief moments when the ensemble is playing as a unit. Although Donatoni doesn’t really develop the music conventionally (he seldom did), things tend to become a bit more cohesive as the piece goes on…until the 9:45 mark, where the entire chamber group seems to be having a free-for-all knockdown, drag-out fight to the finish. And nobody wins.
Hannah Lash (b. 1981) wrote Leander and Hero on a commission from The City of Tomorrow. You can ignore the fact that the group asked her to write something apocalyptic based on Climate Change; the piece is actually based on the Greek myth in which the besotted Leander swims across the Hellespont every night to be with his sweetie Hero, only to be drowned by Poseidon in a vicious storm. (You see? They even had Climate Change back in the pre-Industrial Age!) Lash’s music uses some techniques that are similar to Donatoni but her music is generally more lyrical and somewhat more rooted in tonality, or at least bitonality rather than atonality. Personally, I don’t hear much relationship between the music and the story; there are, however, a lot of little fluttering wind passages which may possibly represent Leander swimming his little heart out.
Rather than being presented in one continuous movement, Leander and Hero is divided into nine sections, the first and last being titled “The Cliffs.” The others are titled “Courting Dance: Slow and Ancient,” which struck me as boring and of very little interest; “Flocking,” “First Storm,” “Hero and Leander,” “Interlude: away from the rocks,” “The Storm; Leander does not return to the nest,” and “Hero Finds Leander’s Body and Will Not Leave His Side.” By and large, it’s a nice piece. pleasant to listen to while it’s being played but nothing much to write home about. Even in “Flocking,” Lash’s music overstays its welcome, repeating identical or similar figures over and over and over again. In “Hero Finds Leander’s Body,” Lash beats her sad little musical lick to death; the effect is neither sad nor touching, merely annoying.
Fortunately, the CD ends with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Memoria, a piece written for the 20th anniversary of the Avanti Chamber Orchestra in 2003. This is a fine piece, well-structured and musically interesting, very bitonal throughout but not trying to be purposely abrasive. Yet the music is constantly in flux, both thematically and harmonically. There’s a wonderfully complex canon in the middle and, according to the notes, “Memoria ends in memory of Berio with a homophonic chorale featuring the darker grain of alto flute, English horn and contrabassoon.” An excellent piece.
So there you have it: two excellent pieces sandwiched around a very inferior one, but all are played superbly by the group and, after all, you never know what you’ll come up with when you commission new music. That’s the risk you take; fortunately, more than half the time you come up with gems.
— Lynn René Bayley, 6.21.2021
The crew behind this might be a bunch of experimenters and envelope pushers but they aren’t doing this look-no-hands style. A polished set of players, they know how far they can take things and toe their own line in a way that works without the wheels rolling off. It might be avant garde modern classical but if you’ve got a taste for out sound, you’re already half way to getting what’s going on here.
— Chris Spector, 5.28.2021
The music is considerably more modern on a New Focus Recordings release featuring the wind quintet The City of Tomorrow. Most of the disc is taken up by Leander and Hero, commissioned by the ensemble. This is a nine-movement suite that requires the audience to know in advance just what the composer is doing and just how the performers are implementing the plan – a common approach in contemporary music that has the unfortunate effect of making the music itself subservient to a set of words or concepts that the notes, on their own, never evoke. Hannah Lash (born 1981) takes the tale of Hero and Leander – one of the simpler and more affecting Greek myths, about lovers who find each other when one follows a light to the other, only to die when the light is extinguished one night – and tries to turn it into a story about birds that somehow reflects climate change. In other words, the named characters are now birds, and their separation has nothing to do with a light but is caused by a storm that, in turn, is supposed to have been worsened by a changing climate. There is nothing particularly compelling about this recasting of the myth – in fact, one would expect audiences to react less strongly to a story of birds than to one of doomed human lovers – and there is also nothing especially innovative in the structure of the suite, whose opening Prelude and concluding Postlude use essentially the same music, although emphasized somewhat differently, in a standard attempt to make it clear that the material between the musical bookends is a self-contained story (as in, say, Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel). Lash’s seventh and longest movement, which is supposed to represent the great storm, is surprisingly ineffective: there are intervallic clashes and extended dissonances in it, but no attempt at a massed sound that an audience would perceive as storm-like. In fact, without knowing the concept, then reading and absorbing the movement titles, there is no way to follow the intended story. Even comprehending the idea does not always make the music more engaging: for example, although Flocking does have the sound of birds gathering and communicating, Courting Dance: Slow and Ancient has no sounds that really reflect its title. The members of The City of Tomorrow handle the music well, but the concept itself is flawed: it is fine for a composer to be inspired by some issue or other, but if the music in and of itself does not communicate the inspiration or concern, then a work falls short, as this one does. The other two pieces on this (+++) CD are more interesting. Each is in a single extended movement. In Blow, Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) displays the winds’ virtuosity both singly and in combination, using irregular rhythms and contrasts between linear and chordal elements to give a general feeling of forward momentum. At more than 13 minutes, the piece goes on a bit too long, but the interplay among instruments and accentuation of their individual sounds is attractive. The final extended, dissonant tutti chord, however, is on the silly side: this sort of thing worked far better in the hands of Ives, who used a similar chord to end his Symphony No. 2 and deliberately made it very short – to discomfit the audience rather than simply produce a blaring sound. And that was in 1902. The CD concludes with Memoria by conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (born 1958), which does a good job of contrasting the timbres of the winds – the opening juxtaposition of alto flute and horn sets the scene convincingly. The work has enough flow, even without discernible themes and with a rather diffuse structure, to be aurally engaging, and alterations of pacing and emphasis pull the ear effectively in different directions as the music progresses. Like Donatoni’s work, Salonen’s persists a bit too long (more than 15 minutes) in light of its repeated use of similar sounds and techniques; but on the whole, it makes effective use of the available sonorities of the winds. And the final, chorale-like texture provides some genuine contrast with what has come before, making for a satisfying conclusion.
An enterprising recital by an enterprising group, who specialise in music requiring "a fearless aesthetic and a commitment to 21st-century music". Donatoni's piece is from 1989, and in common with his other late works it has a sparkling, irresistible energy, and, eschewing dogma, sounds like a composer of irreproachable technique reveling in his compositional virtuosity. Meticulously notated and intricate, crystalline and kaleidoscopic, it shows how much sheer fun atonal music can be! Salonen's Memoria was premiered in a concert alongside Berio's Laborintus II, which also deals with memory, and the piece ends with a beautiful, dark-toned heterophonic chorale in memoriam Berio's, which lends the work a cyclic shape, referring back to the slow introductory section. In between is an energetic jeu d'esprit, gathering momentum and building excitement as it goes, with the propulsive post-minimalistic ostinati and predominantly tonal idiom characteristic of Salonen. Leander and Hero is Lash's nine-movement retelling of the Greek myth, with the protagonists represented by a pair of migratory seabirds. The layers of symbolism contained in the commission - by this ensemble - is hard to detect in the music, though its avian narrative and lonely seascape setting are clear enough. Hero and Leander find each other in the swirling flock; they have two intimate duets, one a mourning episode after the storm kills Leander, and the music is evocative and finely wrought, in a very tonal idiom. The music feels like an eloquent poetic narration from antiquity, rather than a dramatic enactment; even the storms are described in terms of strained dissonance rather than depicted in apocalyptic sonics. The work's loveliest moments are those of courtship, togetherness and lamentation, two soloists circling around one another, backed by a "Greek chorus" of subtle texture from the other instruments.
— n/a, 8.06.2021