Review: Chicago’s Cedille Records Continues to Promote Excellence in Its 2023 Releases
Chicago’s Cedille Records released lots of enjoyable music in 2023. Like previous years, Cedille releases focus on lesser-known music worthy of greater attention. Unlike previous years, most of the releases were of larger scale ensembles. Solo instruments included violin, clarinet, and piano. Several artists and composers are people of color. One Cedille release from 2023 has been nominated for a Grammy Award.
There was a lot of vocal music in Cedille’s releases this year, including opera, choir, and accompanied solo voice. My favorite release was of this variety, so we’ll start here.
Bass-baritone Mark Steven Doss offers a lovely introduction to the world of opera, music for the stage, and American spirituals. As someone who has never been all that interested in opera and vocal music, I found this disc a total wonderment, even those selections I already knew. Doss has a deep, mellifluous voice that just resonates with vibrancy and elan.
It opens with several devil arias from operas and vocal works involving Faust. The first two I did not know: Hector Berlioz’s “Une puce gentile” from La Damnation de Faust and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Flohlied” from his Faust.
Familiar arias were the Toreador song from George Bizet’s Carmen and "Non più andrai" from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. One early high point is an aria I didn’t know, “Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto,” from George Friedrich Handel’s Rinaldo.
The 21 tracks on this CD reflect an astonishing diversity of musical styles. Halfway through, Doss branches away from the classical genres. While Ken Smith accompanied him most of the time on piano, Stas Venglevski accompanies with accordion on three songs from Naples, Eduardo de Capua’s 'O sole mio and Ernesto De Curtis’ Torna a Surriento and Non ti scrodar di me.
Doss also explores songs from the 20th and 21st centuries, including three by Kurt Weill and several American spirituals. It ends with a beautiful rendition of You Raise Me Up, written in 2001 by Brendan Graham and Rolf Lovland.
This excellently packaged release stretched my enjoyment levels in many ways. First, as mentioned above, opera is not something I’ve pursued over the years. There are so many classical entertainment options in Chicago, I’ve been able to focus on instrumental music, especially chamber. Getting to know an opera on a deeper level has been enjoyable.
Second, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is a gifted composer of color from the classical music era who, in his lifetime, was compared favorably to his contemporary Mozart but was subsequently ignored. As Cedille Records has demonstrated, there is a lot of enjoyable music by neglected composers that only need rediscovery and attention. As this and other Cedille releases of his music illustrate, Bologne is worthy of being performed and appreciated.
Third, formed in 2010, Chicago’s Haymarket Opera Company is dedicated to performing operas from the 17th and 18th centuries using period instruments and historically accurate staging techniques. It has performed over 30 operas.
Artistic Director Craig Trompeter conducts the performance of L’Amant Anonyme (The Anonymous Lover). Leading roles are sung by soprano Nicole Cabell, tenor Geoffrey Agpalo, bass-baritone David Govertsen, soprano Erica Schuller, tenor Michael St. Peter, and soprano Nathalie Colas.
This opera offers many enjoyable arias, solos, and choruses. What it does not have, however, are the musical recitatives that typically connect the musical pieces. Instead, it uses spoken dialogue between the musical works. Discs one and two offer Acts One and Two, respectively, in their totality. Disc three offers the music alone, and that’s the one I enjoyed most. While not the most robust operative music I’ve ever heard, it’s very enjoyable and memorable.
This lovely release is by a local vocal group Chicago A Cappella, which, as their name suggests, is devoted to singing without accompaniment. As choirs singing alone typically are, this release is very peaceful and reflective. Miracle of Miracles: Music for Hanukkah is a nice reminder of the music I heard growing up in a Jewish household.
Many of the pieces on this release are arrangements of traditional songs, such as Robert Applebaum’s treatment of "Oh Chanukkah"/Y’mei Hachanukah. Applebaum also arranged for choir two dreidl songs: Samuel E Goldfarb’s “Funky Dreidl” (I Had a little dreidl) and Mikhl Gelbart’s “I am a Little Dreydl” (Ikh bin a kleyner Dreydl).
The disc also explores traditional and modern tonalities. Three versions of the traditional hymn “Al Hanisim” show this out, with jazz tonalities thrown in. These were arranged by Applebaum and Elliot Z. Levine. A third version was composed by Joshua Fishbein.
The timing of this disc was extraordinary. It appeared in my mailbox days after the start of the current Hamas/Israel war. Stacy Garrop’s arrangement of “Lo Yisa Goy,” a prayer for peace, is a perfect way to end. This was originally on the Chicago A Cappella release, Christmas a cappella.
Grammy Awards winner Third Coast Percussion has been nominated again, this time for their latest Cedille release, Between Breaths. The concert introducing this disc was reviewed here.
The CD opens with deep inhales called for in Missy Mazzoli’s Millennium Canticles, a work in five movements that includes a lion’s roar created by wet cloths massaging a lengthy rope tied to the head of a bass drum.
Although it’s not accompanied by the film shown in performance, Third Coast Percussion’s own composition In Practice is a high point on the disc, as is Gemma Peacocke’s Death Wish, which concludes the release. TCP has been performing this quite a bit. Also on the CD are Sunny X by Tyondai Braxton and Triple Point by Ayanna Woods.
Clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, accompanied by his wife clarinetist Teresa Reilly and pianist Patrick Godon, survey clarinet music by modern and contemporary composers with ties to Chicago. While I would not go so far as to call this music “classic,” it is very enjoyable, from the opening romp by Alexander Tcherepnin. His Sonata in One Movement for Clarinet and Piano sets the tone with a fast, memorable tune that has stuck with me. Yeh and Godon mesh well.
This is followed by Stacy Garrop’s Phoenix Rising for Solo Clarinet. The first of its two movements, “Dying in Embers” is a slow, reflection, while the second, “Reborn in Flames” has the phoenix rising with rapid, ascending melodies.
One of the weightier works on the disc is Leo Sowerby’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. This four-movement work starts with a dirge movement that introduces the themes that are explored in later movements, which get very fun and lively.
Yeh’s wife Teresa Reilly wrote Forgiveness Train for two Clarinets. They perform it together, showing lovely melodic interactions between the two instruments.
One Cedille Records release from earlier this year is Concertos by contemporary Syrian composer Malek Jandali, with Marin Alsop conducting the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. This release features solos by two native Chicagoans of superstar rank: violinist Rachel Barton Pine and clarinetist Anthony McGill.
Jandali’s compositions seek to incorporate melodies and musical idioms from his homeland Syria. It includes the use of the Oud, an Arabic lute. The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was inspired by women and dedicated to Pine. It is no accident that the performance was conducted by Alsop.
The clarinet concerto offers a nice contrast. Jandali creates a great sound with McGill and the other winds playing back and forth with the strings setting the tone.
As described in a feature article on Rachel Barton Pine, her most recent CD explores her love for heavy metal in the classical sense. This release pairs Earl Maneein’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Dependent Arising with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in a-minor.
These works were recorded with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Tito Muñoz, who commissioned Maneein to compose the concerto after hearing the world premiere of the work for solo violin Maneein composed for Pine in 2014.
Violinist Earl Maneein is the songwriter and lead violin player for the guitar-less metal core band Resolution5. Maneein had previously composed a solo violin piece for Pine Metal Organic Framework, which Pine premiered in 2014.
In describing the Maneein concerto, Pine wrote in the liner notes, “[it] elevates the rhythmic patterns and aggression of various heavy music subgenres to an expanded realm of storytelling. Those who know these musical roots will spot them (the world’s first blast beats created on symphonic percussion and timpani!), but those who approach it as any other contemporary classical work will fall in love with its emotional journey.”
Regarding 20th-century Russian composer Shostakovich, Pine posited that there is no classical composer more beloved of metalheads.
Another excellent release from pianist Jorge Federico Osorio. Conciertos Románticos features music by composers from his home country of Mexico, both of whom straddled the 20th century: Ricardo Castro and Manuel María Ponce. Osorio performs with Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería, conducted by Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto. The music on this CD has all the hallmarks of the romantic era, with some modern sensibilities thrown in.
While the focus is on piano concertos, Osorio also presents several lovely miniatures by both composers. Osorio’s playing is suave and delicate, but it also can be fiery and dramatic.
The first thing that struck me upon hearing the Ricardo Castro’s Piano Concerto in a-minor, Op. 22, was how similar it sounded to a more famous piece written 60 years later, Richard Adinsell’s Warsaw Concerto. Castro’s concerto takes it much further, ending in a Polonaise. This was followed by three solo pieces that reminded me of a cross between Fredric Chopin and Johannes Brahms.
Manuel Maria Ponce’s Piano Concerto No. 1, “Romantico” has much the same feel as Castro’s work, although it’s a bit more modern. Same with miniatures.
Finally, Cedille Records has packaged into a single release the Dover Quartet's excellent recordings of Beethoven's string quartets. These have been reviewed here and here and here previously. They are excellent recordings in every way.
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A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.