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Contemporary Music, Music Review



Living Composers Bring Relevance to Their Music

June 15, 2020 - Durham, NC:


Coping with crisisGreat art, including music, has the power to shine a light on pivotal moments in history, stimulating insight and even hope for the listener. It also has bridge-building possibilities while illuminating our shared humanity. And thanks to modern technology, we can hear inspiring music in the intimacy of our own spaces. Here are a few recommendations.

Dr. Peter Askim, composer, conductor, and bassist, is a faculty member of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. During summer breaks, he heads up to Connecticut for the Next Festival for Emerging Artists, an experience he calls an "un-festival." This year, most of the interaction will be virtual, but he is no less enthusiastic about his work. You can sample Askim's compositions on his website and SoundCloud.

Drawn from his expertise on the instrument, "Edge," for solo double bass, on the album Moving, Still, will impress anyone who admires the deep, resonant sound. Jeremy Kurtz-Harris' performance is dazzling in this piece where jazz meets Bach. Move over Edgar Meyer!

For an Asian-Pacific trip, listen to "... but the rain..." (also from Moving, Still), for shakukachi and 21-string koto. Commissioned by Orchestra Asia-Japan, it was written for Seizan Sakata and Reiko Kimura. During a week I needed something beautiful, this breath-taking performance was my ticket to paradise.

If you love the lush sound of a fine mezzo-soprano, Autumn Landscape and "Spring Watching Pavilion," performed by Jennifer Beattie, will open your heart. The world premiere took place on the NCSU campus at Stewart Theatre on March 31, 2019. The community based Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Askim, was at its best. (See a review of that performance here.) I will be returning to this recording again!

World renowned for his computer-assisted compositions, Professor Rodney Waschka also teaches at NCSU. Although many of his pieces are nestled on compilations with other artists, the wealth of material in his catalog could provide a lifetime of listening. I've chosen two that give you a taste of his work.

"Considering Jupiter" (2017) (...Our Passage to the Stars...: Blue Griffin Recording*), for amplified piano and fixed electronic music, was performed by NCSU pianist Olga Kleiankina at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington on April 5, 2019, and again at North Carolina Museum of Art on May 5, 2019. Against Waschka's other worldly computer music, Kleiankina's playing swept me away.

Saint Ambrose (2002: Capstone Records CPS-8708), a chamber opera in one act for saxophone/actor and recorded electronic computer music based on the life of Ambrose Bierce, is an example of Waschka's inventive work. It is witty, musically and technologically rich, and, on this recording, convincingly performed by Steve Duke. Waschka, a keen observer of the absurdities in everyday life, inherits the spirit of Mark Twain. I was completely absorbed while listening through headphones.

Finally, Anthony Davis' X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (libretto by Thulani Davis and story by Christopher Davis). (1992, Gramavision Records) is particularly timely. This three-act opera focuses on key moments of the African-American civil rights activist who challenged us to look squarely at the tragic effects of racism. For more information about the composer, click here. And if you haven't already, read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The cast includes Eugene Perry, baritone, Thomas J. Young, tenor, Priscilla Baskerville, soprano;,Hilda Harris, mezzo-soprano, and Herbert Perry, bass-baritone. The composer's band, Episteme, an octet, seamlessly improvises with the inclusion of Orchestra of St. Luke's. Our own William Henry Curry conducts. Davis' music is challenging, and brilliantly performed. It's riveting.

Davis, who won a Pulitzer Prize (May 2020) for The Central Park Five, will at last, rise in stature as an important African-American composer. And X will surely become part of the operatic canon. When you are able, go to a staged performance.

*Note: "...Our Passage to the Stars..." is also the title of Askim's commissioned piece for the program.