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Four musical gifts you should give yourself if you didn’t get them during the holidays

Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, and Festivus — all of their latest editions are now a distant memory.  Perhaps it passed by and you didn’t get the CD you had secretly hoped for.   Or maybe you’ve got an Amazon gift card and you’ve decided that you should really stop accumulating novels about forlorn vampires that twinkle in the sunlight.  Or possibly you need to cleanse your eardrums of that song from Frozen that little girls sing endlessly.

Let me help.  Here are four excellent musical gift ideas, all with ties to Southern California musicians, all released last year.  Because sometimes the best gifts are the ones you give yourself.

1.  For anyone that has a pulse:  

Lorraine

(Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano, et al; Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Yarlung Records)

lorraineEveryone to whom I’ve ever spoken that had the honor and pleasure of hearing Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing in person was forever transformed by the experience.

Whether singing arias by Baroque masters like Handel and Bach, orchestral songs by Mahler, or contemporary works by John Adams or her husband (composer Peter Lieberson), she had that rare ability to project the full depth of meaning of the lyrics she sang in the most musically compelling way.  Even some of the most jaded musicians were known to have cried while they accompanied her performances.

Her tragic death in 2006 at the still-young age of 52 left a considerable void in the classical music universe. The relatively small collection of recordings she left behind has been a sad consequence. Thankfully, there is one relatively new addition to her library.  Last year, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra released a live recording made during a 2003 concert of Ms. Hunt Lieberson performing Bach’s Mein Herze Schwimmt in Blut (My Heart Swims in Blood).

The cantata is a nearly half-hour traversal of emotional range.  She seers at the beginning and sooths at the end.  Throughout, she sings with her trademark vocal purity matched with gut-wrenching intensity and technical precision.  The orchestra, led here by music director Jeffrey Kahane, is in very good form, with LACO principals Allan Vogel (oboe d’amore) and Roland Kato (viola) adding beautiful solos of their own. This is a “must have” recording.

My only quibble is that the work is offered as a single 28-minute-long track; it would have been much more preferable had they split it up into the eight sections of the cantata.

A perfectly fine rendition of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, led by LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer and featuring flutists David Shostac and Brook Ellen Schoenwald recorded during a 2011 performance, is a welcome bonus.

2.  For the open-minded and technology-savvy contemporary music fan:

John Cage – The Ten Thousand Things:  I Ching Edition

(John Cage, narrator; Vicki Ray, prepared piano; Aron Kallay, prepared piano; Tom Peters, double bass; William Winant, percussion; MicroFest Records)

The Ten Thousand ThingsAny recording of John Cage’s music is going to be a journey through the unexpected, but this Grammy-nominated collection is particularly an adventure.

The composer never actually published any composition called “The Ten Thousand Things.”  As the album notes describe:

“. . . it was the term that he used in his notes when referring to his grand project, an open-ensemble piece that was to be, ‘a large work which will always be in progress and will never be finished; at the same time any part of it will be able to be performed once I have begun. It will include tape and any other time actions, not excluding violins and whatever else I put my attention to…’ [John Cage, letter to Pierre Boulez, 1953].”

Recording any of Cage’s works built on chance and randomness typically memorializes a single version of a work that, if the composer’s intent is truly to be followed, is specifically intended to take very different shapes and forms each time it is played.  No matter how good that single recorded performance may be, it’s an inherently limiting exercise.  Imagine filming a single hand of poker, then watching it over and over again, after which you delude yourself into thinking you understand the detailed nuances of the game.  That’s not unlike what usually happens when you record Cage.The Ten Thousand Things USB

Aron Kallay and his intrepid colleagues cleverly use technology to solve this problem.  The “I Ching Edition” of this release not only has the usual musical CD, but also includes a plastic card with an image of the composer on its front and USB drive that pops out.  Plug that into a Mac, and up pops an easy to use tool that lets you choose which of the five parts — 2 different prepared pianos, double bass, percussion, and spoken word — you wish to play. More importantly, every time you stop and start the music, the various snippets of music and silence within each part are played in a different order, just as Cage had intended.

This is music that one doesn’t casually put on as background — which is exactly why one should pony up the extra $40-ish to get the I Ching edition instead of just settling for the basic CD-only version.  If you’re interested in “The Ten Thousand Things,” you’re almost certainly going to be an active listener, and this version enables as active a listening experience as you’re probably ever going to get of Cage’s music outside a concert hall.  From the moment I plugged in the USB, I discovered that the interactive nature of the tool made the entire musical experience more engaging.  It made me want to listen much more than I would have otherwise.

Of course, none of this would matter if the performances themselves weren’t worthwhile.  Thankfully, they are all top notch.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a more dedicated group of Cage-o-philes than the four who performed here.  The composer himself is featured in 45′ for a Speaker care of a lost-then-found 1962 recording.

Order this release, plug in the USB, and open up your mind.

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3.  For the choral music fan who isn’t afraid of digital downloads:

50th Season Celebration Concert

(Los Angeles Master Chorale:  Grant Gershon, Music Director and conductor; Lesley Leighton, associate conductor; a LAMC Live release)

LAMC 50th anniv concertThe opening concert of the Master Chorale’s 2013/2014 season was an absolute stunner.  If you were one of the 2,200 or so people in attendance, you now have a way to re-live that great experience.  If you weren’t, you can now get a taste of what you missed.

This is an excellent collection of seventeen of the a capella works from that night.  Older works like the traditional chant “Veni Creator Spiritus,” Vittoria’s “Ave Maria,” and Palestrina’s “Tu Es Petrus” share space with more modern classics like Duruflé’s warm “Ubi Caritas,” a selection from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, and even Duke Ellington’s rarely heard take on The Lord’s Prayer.  Grant Gershon’s fluid interpretation of “O Magnum Mysterium” also makes an appearance, as do lighter works like Roger Wagner’s arrangement of “Danny Boy,” the ever-bouncy “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit” by William L. Dawson, and much more.  The Master Chorale sounds resplendent throughout.

This release is NOT available on CD — if you want it, you’ve got to be willing to partake in that 21st Century custom known as “downloading music.”  The album (we can still call it an “album,” right?) is only available via iTunes, Amazon, or the Master Chorale’s own website, www.lamc.org. If you want to give this music as a gift (which you really should), you can go to Master Chorale’s website and order a physical gift card, complete with downloading instructions, and have it sent to you or anybody else in the US.

Incidentally, the sound quality of the mp3 files is quite good (at a bitrate of 256kbps).  The lack of at least one lossless download option is a major bummer, but despite that fact, only the most uptight of audiophiles would allow it to diminish one’s appreciation for this wonderful collection of vocal artistry.

RELATED LINK:

4.  For the music fan in need of visual stimulation:

Verdi:  Messa da Requiem

(Julianna DiGiacomo, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Vittorio Grigolo, tenor; Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, bass:  Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel; C Major Entertainment and others)

Dudamel - Verdi Requiem DVDLast summer at the Hollywood Bowl, Gustavo Dudamel led the combined forces of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and four soloists in two performances of Verdi’s Requiem. Footage from those nights were combined into this single video release.

The highly operatic take on the Catholic Church’s traditional Requiem mass for the dead, written in honor of Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, is squarely in the middle of Mr. Dudamel’s wheelhouse.  His interpretation is lush, intense, and spacious without ever becoming bombastic or dreary.  The orchestra and chorus respond adroitly and sound terrific.

The vocal quartet is mostly excellent.  Juliana DiGiacomo (soprano) has a light touch to go along with some powerful chops.  Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) is impressive, with a penetrating quality to both her countenance as well as her singing.  Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass) brings the usual warm and rich tone we’ve come to expect of him.  Only tenor Vittorio Grigolo is a bit of a disappointment:  he is technically proficient, but his consistently overwrought style is a bit distracting and he doesn’t mesh with the three other soloists as well as he should.

The video quality is solid.  There are a few misses — most notably failing to show the additional trumpeters who come out from the wings during the “Tuba Mirum” — but overall, the director and editor do a fine job balancing shots of the soloists, conductor, individual musicians in the LA Phil, and wide shots of both orchestra and Master Chorale.  The occasional wide shots of the Bowl panning from a crane are a nice touch.

For people who haven’t followed Mr. Dudamel regularly over the past years and whose perception is one of him doing podium acrobatics, the footage does a fine job showing how much more toned-down his conducting style has become than when he first burst onto the classical music scene.  The behind-the-scenes look at the rehearsal combined with the interview of the young maestro are worthwhile.

The audio quality is commendable.  Often, live recordings like this can sound either overly distant and two dimensional on one end of the spectrum or too closely miked on the other.  Thankfully, that’s not the case here.  The DTS 5.1 format did a nice job of imaging across the soundstage without being gimmicky in its use of surround sound.  More importantly, the full dynamic range of the piece is rendered faithfully, from the soft entrance at the beginning of the Requiem to the grandiosity of the famous “Dias Irae.”

I was grateful that the subtitle menu options included the original Latin text as well as various translations.  It would have been nice to be able to see Latin and English at the same time, but that’s nitpicking.  (It’s worth mentioning that the default setting of the disc is to show no subtitles at all.)

Verdi fans, Dudamel fans, LA Phil fans — you won’t be disappointed.

(NOTE:  My review is based on the DVD of the relase.  I would expect that the Blu-ray edition would provide even more clarity in both audio and video quality, but not having actually seen it, I can’t say for sure).

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