Expressions: Music for Chamber Orchestra by American Composers
Hilary TANN (b.1947)
The Walls of Morlais Castle, for strings (1998/2009) [10:15]
Münir N BEKEN (b.1964)
Concerto for Turkish ud and chamber orchestra (2005/2008) [16:34]
Howard QUILLING (b.1935)
Remembrance, for wind quintet and strings (2007) [14:14]
Max LIFCHITZ (b.1948)
Expressions, for strings (1982) [9:01]
Yellow Ribbons no.40, for French horn, wind quartet, piano and strings (2005) [14:15]
Münir Nurettin Beken (Turkish ud); Ann Ellsworth (French horn)
North/South Chamber Orchestra/Max Lifchitz
rec. Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, 7-10 January 2010. DDD

By name alone Max Lifchitz might be taken to be a musical theatre impresario - a notion his old-fashioned booklet photo does little to counter! Besides being a considerable pianist, conductor and composer, he is the founder and director of the hugely admirable not-for-profit North South Consonance project. Aspects of this include the recording label, the Chamber Orchestra and a yearly series of free public concerts in New York. Premiere performances were given at those free concerts. For all of that his name deserves to be widely known. The five works in his programme here are all first recordings.
Despite the CD title, Howard Quilling is in fact the only composer in this programme who was actually born in America! Several of his works have appeared on previous North South discs (N/S R 1001, 1007). The three movements of Remembrance address emotions that memories evoke, but in a generalised manner. As an American, Quilling is keen not to "impose my set of memories on listeners". The result is somewhat generic, particularly the 'heartfelt remembrance' of the final section. Overall the piece is bright and hopeful, and written in a neo-Classical style that is hard to dislike.
Münir Beken was in his mid 20s when he left his native Turkey for an academic post in the US, already an established ud (oud) virtuoso. His splendidly-titled orchestral piece I am a Corpse recently appeared on the ERM label (5579, 'Masterworks of the New Era, Vol.13'). The ud, Turkish or otherwise, has the same etymology as the lute, and its sound is not dissimilar: slightly more brittle than the guitar, but nevertheless rich and atmospheric. There is little of the Middle Eastern exotica in Beken's Concerto, however. Most listeners are more likely to be reminded here and there of a Rodrigo Guitar Concerto, although one of those by Hovhaness or Brouwer would be a closer fit. Concise and aesthetically pleasing, Beken's Concerto deserves wider recognition.
Twenty years ago Wales-born Hilary Tann appeared on a Lorelt CD entitled British Women Composers Volume 2 (LNT103). Since 1980 she has been living in New York but demonstrating like a true Cymres that she would not forget her roots. Only two years ago her piece A Sad Pavan Forbidding Mourning featured in a guitar recital, aptly entitled Hiraeth ('Longing'), on the small independent Welsh Galles Music label (GMCCD1003). And so to her contribution to a collection of works by American composers! The Walls of Morlais Castle began life as a trio, recorded incidentally on Deux-Elles (DXL1132, monograph). To describe the real Morlais Castle near Merthyr Tydfil as a ruin is to be very generous - it is little more than a scattered heap of medieval rubble. Tann's work seeks to capture on the one hand the bleakness of its condition and location, and on the other the jaunty rhythms of the stone placements in the surviving wall fragments. We also catch something of the imagined hustle and bustle of castle life long ago; perhaps even of the builders as they busied themselves with a project which was never in fact completed.
Born and raised in Mexico, Max Lifchitz studied early on under Rodolfo Halffter, before emigrating to New York and continuing under Berio, Kirchner and Maderna. Such an education may suggest an inclination towards fairly hardcore modernism. The notes describe Lifchitz's Expressions as making use of "post-tonal harmonies". 'Expressionism with a friendly face' is a fair way to describe both his contributions, ironically the only works in his programme that may not appeal immediately to a listener raised on standard orchestral repertoire. They are quality pieces nevertheless, if not entirely uncontroversial. Yellow Ribbons no.40 takes its strange title from its place in a series of works Lifchitz began in the 1980s as "a personal way of celebrating the artistic and political freedom so often taken for granted in the West." All well and good, but the inspiration for the series was the so-called "Iranian hostage crisis" of 1979-81. It takes a peculiarly American view of the world to see US involvement in the installation of the despotic Shah of Iran and the subsequent attempted subversion of the 'Islamic Revolution' - the political precursor to the hostage-taking - as a thing to celebrate, in music or otherwise. Still, Yellow Ribbons no.40 is a memorable work, superbly scored, and can be enjoyed, militaristic colourings and all, without reference to its impetus.
Besides the multi-faceted Lifchitz, the star of the show is the North/South Chamber Orchestra, consisting here of up to 19 players. Their commitment to new music is incontestable. Here they seem at their very best when the challenge is greatest, in the two works by their conductor. The wind section is especially commendable.
With regard to audio quality, North/South point up the following: "Great care was taken to preserve the integrity of the concert hall ambiance when this album was recorded and mastered. Indeed, the listener will find that the natural resonance of the concert hall and the music's wide dynamic range were captured successfully. Please use a moderate volume setting when playing this disc." Sound is indeed decent, but a higher volume does not seem to do any harm - a good thing too, because some will feel the urge to turn the music up!
The booklet is well designed, neat and clear, the notes and composer biographies extensive and well written. Lifchitz even had a hand in those!
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The five works here are all first recordings.