Listening During Covid Part 12: Adventures in Ethnic and National Diversity

By Ralph P. Locke

I am honestly baffled by the flippancy or, at times, fierceness with which some people today dismiss classical music as inherently narrow or elitist.

Stella: Renaissance Jewels and Their Reflections, vol. 3. A cappella choral works by and inspired by the Spanish Renaissance master Tómas Luis de Victoria. ORA Singers, cond. Suzi Diby. Harmonia Mundi HMM 905341.

Un Milagro de fe (A Miracle of Faith). Sacred choral works from Bilbao, Ramirez, Williams and Golijov. Border Crossing Choir and instrumental ensembles, dir. Ahmed Anzaldua. Bridge Records 9568.

violin odyssey. Itamar Zorman, violin; Ieva Jokubaviciute, piano; Kwan Yi, piano. First-hand records 119.

Click here to buy the CD ORA Singers, Itamar Zorman or Un Milagro de fe.

The world of classical music – or “Western art music” – has long been a strongly multicultural world, rich in what is now called ethnic “diversity”. Composers from northern Europe (such as Josquin, Handel and Mozart) traveled to Italy to study and make a career. Bohemian musicians (such as Gluck and Johann Stamitz) had their works performed and published in Vienna and Paris, sometimes bringing (as in Gluck’s case) elements of Eastern European music. In the 20th century, composers from Russia to Japan intrigue the ears of listeners in concert halls (Stravinsky) and cinemas (Toshiro Mayuzumi, in the soundtrack of John Huston’s film The Bible: In the Beginning). And, of course, there are composers like Debussy and Britten who were extremely attentive to the musical traditions of distant lands (Spain, America and Indonesia in the case of Debussy; Japan and Bali in the case of Britten). The world has become even smaller in recent decades, thanks to the Internet. Enterprising performers can now easily obtain scores from distant lands, or even commission new pieces from a composer they admire.

Three CDs that recently came to me stretch widely in their search for new and unfamiliar sounds. Each succeeds in creating a significant experience, the time of a concert, inscribed on the surface of a plastic disc (or of course accessible for download or streaming).

The first CD is by the widely acclaimed ORA singers. This London-based vocal ensemble was founded by conductor and artistic director Suzi Digby just six years ago, but has already commissioned some 50 new works from composers around the world, including a mix of women and men, and a mixture of familiar names. (John Rutter and Roxana Panufnik, both from England) and others quite unknown, including some who were born, or whose parents were born, in countries far from Europe (for example, Eunseog Lee, from South Korea).

ArtsFuse critic Susan Miron praised an ORA Singers CD of Song of Songs text settings, which included two newly commissioned pieces. This album is the third in a series entitled “Renaissance Gems and Their Reflections”. The Renaissance composer at the center this time is Tomás Luis de Victoria, a Spanish master very much on the level of Lassus (who was born in what is now Belgium), Palestrina (Italy) or Byrd (England), but his works tend not to be performed by choirs nearly as often as theirs.

Digby adds six modern pieces, each responding in some way to a piece by Victoria, and adds further consistency by choosing pieces that all relate to the Virgin Mary. The disc begins and ends with one of the most beautifully constructed Gregorian chants, the processional ‘Ave maris stella’ (‘Hail, star of the sea’).

I was particularly seduced by the pieces by Mark Simpson (“Ave Maria”) and Cecilia McDowall (“Alma redemptoris”, a work marked by neo-medieval chords without thirds and jazzy syncopated rhythms) and I was repeatedly struck by the sureness with which ORA Singers, under Digby, communicates the shifting textures and sometimes startling twists of harmony in these and other modern pieces.

At one point in The Simpsons, I wished for more weight from the bass section. But having only a few singers per part is also a positive virtue on this disc, allowing the chords to be well defined, despite the beautiful echo of the north London church in which the recording was made (in 2017, but released now for the first time). And I was grateful to be able to effortlessly follow the flowing, overlapping melodic lines in the six Victoria pieces included here.

In our second CD, a masterful young violinist from Israel who now teaches at the Eastman School of Music, Itamar Zorman, does not offer newly commissioned works, but pursues what he calls a Violin Odyssey, trying to find in many distant countries particularly remarkable works. pieces from 1900. His taste is irreproachable: each piece quickly imposed itself on me. Some of the names are familiar: Achron (Jewish composer from St. Petersburg, Russia), Silvestre Revueltas (Mexico), Erwin Schulhoff (German-speaking Jew from Prague) and William Grant Still (one of the most renowned black American composers; he was also one of the main orchestrators/arrangers of jazz bands like Artie Shaw’s).

Fewer listeners may be familiar with Grażyna Bacewicz (Poland), Dora Pejačević (Croatia), Gao Ping (China), Gareth Farr (New Zealand) or Moshe Zorman (Israel), but I bet they’ll be happy to do this knowledge. (Moshe Zorman is Itamar’s father, a composition teacher in Tel Aviv.) A series of telling surprises comes from composer Ali Osman (1958-2017), a Sudanese composer who received most of his training in Egypt.

All the pieces are originally for violin and piano, except that of Achron Suite for children, which was originally for solo piano. Zorman plays it in an effective 1934 arrangement by the great Jascha Heifetz.

Several pieces offer intense “local color”: for example, Bacewicz’s elegant Oberek (a fast mazurka), the Achron’s “Caravan” movement, Revueltas’ intense Latin-sounding pieces, and the improvisational sections of Osman Afromood, which use various modes typical of Arabic music. (The work includes a major role for the tambourine, clearly inspired by the Middle East riq.) The single unaccompanied piece, by Gareth Farr, was inspired by “an old Maori folk tale” which included the rising tide of Lake Wakatipu as depicting “the beating heart of a monster longing for its beloved”.

Pejačević’s Sonata No. 2 (1917), subtitled “Slavic”, sounds not so much Eastern European as maturely, powerfully post-Brahmsian, and that suits me perfectly. It’s as effective as one of my favorite works in this style: Karl Weigl’s Viola Sonata from 1940, which, incomprehensibly, has yet to find its way into permanent repertoire.

Throughout this adventurous journey, Itamar Zorman, who won First Prize at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition (Moscow), plays with total mastery and subtle variety. Zorman enjoys first-rate support from its pianists: Kwan Yi in three pieces (Achron, Osman, Schulhoff) and Ieva Jokubaviciute in the rest. (It occurs to me that the three performers themselves form a small musical ONU, and I see in their biography that each has made its own “odyssey” across waters and borders.) For brief excerpts from several of the pieces, here is a great YouTube sampler (audio only).

Our third CD is more “geographically” unified, being devoted to the sacred works of Latin American composers or using Latin American related subjects. The sung texts are mostly from the New Testament or the Catholic Mass (translated into Spanish). One text, in English, speaks of Saint Martín de Porres, who lived in Peru in the 17th century and whose mother was a freed slave of mixed black and indigenous origin. The performances on the disc were recorded in August 2021 at a Unitarian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota and feature a choir (and instrumental ensemble) that goes by the amusing name “Border CrossSing.”

The best known of the four composers here, Osvaldo Golijov (from Argentina), offers two short movements from his much-admired 2000 work titled The Pasion Segun San Marcos, that is to say, The Passion according to Saint Mark. (CrosSing performed this Golijov work in its entirety with the Minnesota Orchestra.) There are two substantial and effective works by the late famous black American jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams (this is the piece about the Peruvian saint) and the eminent Venezuelan composer Beatriz. Bilbao (born in 1951). The Bilbao piece is an atmospheric evocation of a community gathering in Curiepe, Venezuela, with bird calls, pepper drumming and ritual chanting associated with a festival given every June 24 since the 1600s in honor of a mythical African known as San Juan Congo (or, since 1870, in honor of Saint John the Baptist).

The centerpiece is a full representation of the famous Missa Criolla (1964) by Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez. This work, for solo tenor, mixed choir and small orchestra, is somewhat flexible, having been recorded, quite effectively, by folk musicians (on a famous Philips LP), operatic tenor José Carreras, and cabaret singer and political activist Mercedes Sosa. Two movements can be heard in a purely instrumental version with klezmer clarinetist Giora Feidman.

At Ramirez’s Missa Criolla uses the traditional text of the Mass in Latin but translated into Spanish in accordance with the directives of the Second Vatican Council. Here, I felt the piece had found a quiet, reverent home in a small church or perhaps a college chapel, with tenor Matthew Valverde singing softly and steadily (no grand operatic wobble). Mexican-born pianist Ahmed Anzaldúa (part of his family is Egyptian) and Bolivian-born guitarist Gabriel Blondel bring an invigorating cadence to the instrumental interludes of this always engaging work.

Having listened to all three records on several occasions, I am honestly intrigued by the flippancy or, at times, fierceness with which some people today dismiss classical music as inherently narrow or elitist. Composers from all over the world have offered us the product of their fertile imagination. Now, more easily than ever, we can hear what they have to say.

I will also mention, with pleasure, that five of the pieces mentioned above — all substantial and freshly imagined — were composed by women.


Ralph P. Locke is Emeritus Professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Music Writing. His last two books are Musical exoticism: images and reflections and Music and Exotics from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also in the form of an electronic book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Records Guide and online art magazines New York Arts, opera todayand Boston’s musical intelligence. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary) and in the program books of major opera houses, for example Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).

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