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Kenneth Keaton
American Record Guide, January 2011

Three new works, substantial compositions of chamber music, are enough to celebrate. When presented in such fine performances, the pleasure is even greater.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Stephen Smoliar, December 2010

At the beginning of this month, I cited an excellent way to become familiar with the music of Jennifer Higdon through the American Classics series released by Naxos in December of 2006. This past August Naxos released another disc in the same series entitled Awakenings: New American Chamber Music for Guitar. What gives this CD particularly local interest is that two of the compositions it offers were written for the 2006 opening of the new home of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Oak Street in the Civic Center. The third work on the disc is equally “historic,” but for a far sadder reason: it was the penultimate composition by Jorge Liderman, then on the composition faculty at the University of California at Berkeley, before his unexpected death at the age of 50 in 2008. All three compositions feature performances by David Tanenbaum, who directs the Guitar Department at the Conservatory.

By far the most intriguing of the three offerings is “Measures of Turbulence” by Steven Mackey, which the Conservatory Guitar Ensemble (directed by Tanenbaum) performed to celebrate the Conservatory’s new home. Mackey is Chairman of the Music Department at Princeton University, which will probably surprise those who remember that he got his start playing electric guitar in rock bands in Northern California. However, those experiences provided him with a auditory acuity sensitive to the subtle sonorities of both acoustic and electric guitars. He exercised that acuity in this composition by scoring it for five acoustic guitars, two electric ones, and a bass guitar (also electric).

He used the electric instruments primarily for the realization of “multiphonic” tones, from which the ear readily detects the pitches of several upper harmonics, rather than a single fundamental with a particularly rich spectrum. These complex sonorities serve as foreground against a richly textured background (from the acoustic instruments) of 15-against-8 polyrhythms. All this may sound highly cerebral (threatening to be more of an exercise in mathematics than in music); but the combination of churning rhythm and almost alien sonorities results in a highly exhilarating listening experience. Mackey was also responsible for producing the recording made for this disc (along with engineer Roni Jules); so we have every reason to believe that he tried to insure that the sounds from an actual performance were properly captured. The performance by the Guitar Ensemble also makes for a valuable reminder of just how much talent has emerged from the Conservatory’s Guitar Department.

Equally spirited was Liderman’s “Aged Tunes,” scored for guitar (performed by Tanenbaum) and string quartet, the Cuarteto Latinoamericao (violins Saúl Bitrán and Arón Bitrán, viola Javier Monteil, and cello Alvaro Bitrán). Liderman’s death on February 3, 2008 was an apparent suicide, which may lead some to seek out a macabre reading of his final works; but there is no darkness in this composition. There is only the sad fact that the music was not yet published and was performed for this recording from the composer’s manuscript. That music is a setting of the rasgueado strumming technique (most commonly associated with flamenco style) in the context of a string quartet setting. The rhythms are all lively and refreshing, compensating in part for the occasional uncertainties of intonation by the string players.

The only real disappointment comes, unfortunately, at the very beginning of the disc, Two Awakenings and a Double Lullaby for soprano (Hila Plitmann), violin (Axel Strauss), guitar (Tanenbaum), and piano (the composer, Aaron Jay Kernis). The problem is that the guitar is all but inaudible (which rather betrays the title of the entire CD); and one cannot really lay the fault on the recording work (in which Kernis shared production duties with John Parr). Ultimately, the real difficulty is that Kernis composed a very strong line for the soprano, which was well accompanied by the diversity of piano sounds and the upper register strength of the violin but left no room for the subtle sonorities of the guitar. By all rights, this should not have been the case. The texts that Kernis had chosen for the soprano to sing all explored a delicacy of verbal rhetoric that could easily have been matched to the capabilities of the guitar; but the delivery of those texts by the soprano was just too heavy-handed. As a result both the guitar and the words themselves suffered a common fate. However, the listener who perseveres through the three movements of this composition will then be generously rewarded by the subsequent compositions by Liderman and Mackey.

Gapplegate Guitar and Bass Blog, October 2010

The present volume exemplifies the diverse, multi-stylistic musical world we currently inhabit. Awakenings: New American Chamber Music for Guitar (Naxos 8.559650) centers around three modern classical works written in the last decade. The styles covered are of a widely contrasting sort.

Aaron Jay Kernis’s “Two Awakenings and a Double Lullaby,” written for soprano, guitar, violin and piano, combines an advanced harmonic standpoint with both rhapsodic lyricism and echoes of the post-serialist past. Kernis brings together the appealingly sensuous sound of the ensemble with poetic texts about the innocence and wonder of a child’s first awakenings into the world. The second half of the work evokes the “putting-to-sleep” side of parenting by giving voice to “calling forth the angelic watch,” typically a part of traditional Euro-American lullabies.

Jorge Liderman’s “Aged Tunes” contrasts with a rhythmically lively piece for string quartet and classical guitar. This one has some interesting guitar parts and a neo-classical charm. The sound of the quartet with solo guitar has such presence you wish more had been done with this sort of texture since the days of Boccherini. As it is we have this piece and it stands out as a good example of inventive writing that is modern and directly communicating at the same time.

The final piece brings in a full guitar ensemble, both electric and classical guitars in a very interesting sort of post-minimalist confluence. Steven Mackey’s “Measures of Turbulence” creates gong-like sonorances through ingenious uses of ensemble harmonics and some striking classical guitar ensemble passages that contrast vividly with the electric scoring. It is most definitely a piece of memorable music. Mackay takes on where Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists leaves off. Ostinatos, chordal and multi-voiced writing immerse the listener in a fascinating ever-shifting soundscape. This work alone would be worth having even if the other two works were not interesting as well, which they are.

Performances and recording quality are both excellent. David Tannenbaum plays the guitar parts on the first two works and he sounds quite good. He conducts the San Francisco Conservatory Guitar Ensemble for the Mackey work and the players shine forth nicely.

The program has a satisfying flow to it and will most certainly be interesting to those who want to experience contrasting compositional approaches to the contemporary concert guitar both as a solo and an ensemble instrument. Recommended.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

The Second Viennese School would have been pleased to know that radical musical thinking is still thriving in the United States. To my ears the most interesting work on this new release is by Steven Mackey, Measures of Turbulence written for acoustic and electric guitars. I can no better than quote from his programme note with a few linking words omitted for reasons of space: ‘A word about electric guitar harmonics…the finger must be placed very precisely in positions never used for ordinary playing which makes them difficult to notate and difficult to consistently reproduce…each harmonic produces several predictable pitches, which sound like gongs more than a guitar.’ The result is fascinating with the acoustic guitars dance around in ostinato patterns. The work lasts over seventeen minutes and I find it fascinating throughout. Aaron Kernis’s Two Awakenings and a Double Lullaby is more predictably modern. Scored for high soprano, violin, guitar and piano, it is a work of contrasts, the first text coming from Thomas Traherne, a 17th century metaphysical poet; the second from the living Scottish poet, Carol Ann Duffy, and lastly words from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel followed by Angels Watching Over Me. It is a score that sure tests the resilience of the female vocal chords. There is nothing old in Aged Tunes nor to most ears is there very much tune, but Jorge Liderman is looking for new sounds, and were we listening to a Beethoven quartet we would be writing about the dreadful intonation, but as the composer was the disc’s producer, it is obviously intentional and there to test our response. Every work involves the respective composer, so they must set the benchmark.

Kurt Loft
KSMU Radio, August 2010

The classical guitar has come light years since Andres Segovia raised it to the status of a concert instrument, and this superb new disc features exquisitely wrought works by North and South American composers. Aaron Jay Kernis brings the lustrous voice soprano Hila Plitmann to his poetic “Two Awakenings,” and Jorge Liderman’s “Aged Tunes” is a marriage of sonorities for guitar and string quartet. The San Francisco Conservatory Guitar Ensemble displays its virtuosity in Steven Mackey’s 15-minute dreamscape “Measures of Turbulence.”

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