“Azul” = SIAMEK AGHAEI/COLIN JACOBSEN: Ascending Bird; DVOŘÁK: Rusalka: Song to the Moon; GOLIJOV: Azul; STOCKHAUSEN: Tierkreis: Leo; SUFJAN STEVENS: Suite from Run Rabbit Run – Yo-Yo Ma, c./The Knights/Eric Jacobsen – Warner Classics

“Azul” = SIAMEK AGHAEI and COLIN JACOBSEN: Ascending Bird; ANTONIN DVOŘÁK (arr. Jesse Diener-Bennett): Rusalka: Song to the Moon; OSVALDO GOLIJOV: Azul; KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN (arr. Caroline Shaw): Tierkreis: Leo; SUFJAN STEVENS (arr. Michael P. Atkinson): Suite from Run Rabbit Run – Yo-Yo Ma, cello/The Knights/Eric Jacobsen – Warner Classics 0190295875213, 58:43, (3/31/2017) ****:

A diverse and very rewarding collection of works inspired by our world.

My net reaction to this collection of beautiful works, featuring the always amazing cellist Yo-Yo Ma, is “wow!”; just wow!

First and most obviously, it is nearly impossible not to admire the artistry as well as the programming sense of Yo-Yo Ma. He has been one of the world’s great cellists for quite some time now but, to his credit, his work has expanded well beyond all the ‘war horse’ cello concerti and the like (which he plays very well to be sure!)  His work with the Silk Road Ensemble has shown that Ma has used his sensitivity and talents for ‘world music’ and music inspired by current issues and themes to amazing effectiveness.

The title to this incredible collection is also the title of the showcase work, Azul, by Osvaldo Golijov; a composer whose work I have admired for a long time. Each piece here has some thematic connection to the wonder of our ‘blue planet’ and the sources of inspiration for this album include quotes from astronaut John Glenn, poet Pablo Neruda and the overall dichotomy between the raw beauty of our earth and some of the events that take place on it.

Golijov’s work is the longest and the most rewarding work here; a genuine masterpiece in four movements structured as almost a suite for cello with small orchestra. The cello plays a prominent role throughout but it is frequently part of a larger, fascinating texture; not always used as a solo instrument. Like many of the composer’s works, Azul uses modified tunings in places to evoke a somewhat middle-Eastern sound as well as some unusual instrumentations, such as the “hyper-accordion” (an electronically enhanced accordion and often used by Golijov.) This work is beautiful in places, atmospheric and moody in others. It is a very rewarding piece to just listen to, even devoid of explanations.

I liked this whole album a great deal, from the pulse-quickening and attention-getting Ascending Bird by Iranian composer Siamek Aghaei to the always beautiful Song to the Moon by Dvorak and into the Golijov. Caroline Shaw’s arrangement of the “Leo” section from Stockhausen’s Tierkreis (Zodiac) is set for violin and ensemble and – while quite a bit different from the other works herein – is fascinating and somewhat jazzy to listen to. It actually sounds almost like ‘Renaissance jazz.’  Stockhausen wrote a large number of very unusual and ground-breaking works and Shaw is, herself, a very fine composer and vocalist.

Sufjan Stevens is best known as a singer and songwriter who has written a very diverse set of works for film scores, ballet and classical ensembles of various sorts. The Suite from Run Rabbit Run is taken from a dance work, Year of the Rabbit, written for the New York City Ballet. The four movements in this suite, “Year of the Ox”, “Enjoy Your Rabbit”, “Year of Our Lord” and “Year of the Boar”, are, in places, angular and strange and intend to depict aspects of nature but the scoring is highly creative and the piece makes for very interesting listening!  This is a fascinating work!

For me, this really is one of the most interesting and rewarding collections of (mostly) contemporary music with a cross-categorical appeal I have heard this year. The Knights, a New York based modern chamber orchestra led by brothers and founders, Eric and Colin Jacobsen. The group seeks out new and interesting music in performs often in unusual locations including shopping plazas and bars; bringing the music to the people. What a terrific idea and what a terrific group this is!

—Daniel Coombs

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