New Release: Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s “Black Manhattan, Vol. 3”

Today, Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra release their newest album, Black Manhattan, Vol. 3.  The recording brings to life some extraordinary and long-neglected music by African-American composers active in New York around the turn of the twentieth century. Benjamin writes, The inspiration for this effort came about twenty-five years ago, when I read James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan (1930), a fascinating chronicle of the city’s black artistic life from the Victorian era to the …

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New Release: “Troika,” Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley

Political dissent and the “Slavic soul” are at the heart of TROIKA, a new two-disc album by cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley on the Pentatone label. The recording features sonatas by three great twentieth century Russian composers: Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninov. Interspersed between this “troika” are shorter pieces, including the duo’s arrangement of the Troika movement from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé score and Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. The later was a new piece for Haimovitz. In studying the work, O’Riley advised him to listen …

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Berg’s “Wozzeck”: Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony

It’s considered, by some, to be the greatest opera of the twentieth century. Alban Berg’s expressionist tragedy, Wozzeck, inhabits a darkly surreal world of alienation, dispossession, and mental and emotional breakdown. Written between 1914 and 1922, it’s based on a play by the German dramatist, Georg Büchner (1813-1837) -a work left incomplete at the time of Büchner’s death at the age of 23. Berg assembled the libretto from fifteen of Büchner’s scenes, retaining “the essential character of the …

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New Release: Shai Wosner’s “Impromptu”

In music, an “impromptu” is a short solo work which suggests the qualities of an improvisation. Impromptu is the title of a new album by Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner. The recording, released on the Onyx Classics label, features music by composers ranging from Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Liszt to Ives and Gershwin. The Ives, set in three movements, are literal improvisations which were recorded and later notated. Gershwin’s charming and soulful Impromptu in Two Keys pulls …

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New Release: Mendelssohn Symphonies, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe

This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought… to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it. Today was so rich that now, in the evening, I must collect myself a little, and so I am writing to you to thank you, dear parents, for having given me all this happiness. Felix Mendelssohn wrote these word from Venice in October, 1930 around the time he …

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New Release: Haydn’s “Sun” Quartets, Performed by the Chiaroscuro

Is it possible to hear seeds of Romanticism in the string quartets of Franz Joseph Haydn? Recently, as I was listening to the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s newest album, this thought crossed my mind. The recording features Haydn’s Op. 20 “Sun” Quartets Nos. 4-6. (Last year, the ensemble released the first three quartets of the Op. 20 set). They approach the music from a historical perspective with gut strings, baroque bows, and limited vibrato. But there …

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“Rabbit and Rogue”: Danny Elfman’s Larger-Than-Life Ballet Score

Danny Elfman’s film and television scores frequently exhibit a kind of quirky, slightly deranged humor. For example, listen to the zany music which accompanies “The Breakfast Machine” scene from the 1985 comedy, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, in which the persistent pulse of Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance meets 1920s Kurt Weill. I love the way the mechanized madness of that scene is launched by that quiet, initial rhythmic vamp in the bells. Something similar to those chimes from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure …

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