GUI SOOK LEE: Stillness & other works – percussion ens. – Ravello “Scream” = MASSIMO BOTTErR- Zeula – Stradivarius

by | Jun 2, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

GUI SOOK LEE: Stillness, for piano and percussion; Ostinato in Springtime, for percussion quintet; The Movement, for percussion quartet; Moving On, for flute and percussionists; Refrain, for percussion quartet – Ji Hyun Kim, piano/  Kim McCormick, flute/ McCormick Percussion Group /Robert McCormick – 
Ravello RR7810 [Distr. by Naxos], 68:48 ****:
“Scream” = MASSIMO BOTTER: Sentiero in un deserto di lava, for bass clarinet and orchestra; Seven blades, for seven instruments; And at the end. . .the scream, for oboe and 14 instruments; Zéula, for orchestra – Salvador Salvador, bass clarinet /Juan Carlos Báguena, oboe /John Stokes, cello / Orquestra de la Comunidad de Madrid /José Ramón Encinar – Stradivarius STR 33845 [Distr. by Allegro], 50:56 ****:


I hope it isn’t too simplistic to state that the world views inherent in the works of these two composers is so radically different as to suggest the East-West divide stated in the epigraph at the head of this review. After all, South Korean composer Gui Sook Lee received advanced music degrees from Ohio and Ohio State Universities, and she obviously maintains connections with Western musicians and musical groups such as the McCormick Percussion Group. And there are elements in her music that ally it with minimalism or post-minimalism. But these ties serve more to remind me that minimalism has roots in Eastern music than to suggest Lee’s indebtedness to Western music, which seems mostly structural. On the other hand we have Italian composer Massimo Botter, who studied at the Conservatorio di Milano, in the city where he still lives. For all its individuality, his music seems imbued with the spirit of musical Expressionism, a movement that appears the perfect vessel for conveying expressions of contemporary Western Angst.
Recently, I heard a feature story on Public Radio in which Tong-Soon Lee, director of the Gamelan Ensemble of Emory University, explained the background of gamelan music. It’s rooted in the animistic belief system of Indonesia, which perceives the physical world as interpenetrated by the spiritual to such an extent that gamelan musicians view their instruments as beings rather than objects and accord them the respect that should be shown to living things. I was reminded of this as I listened to Gui Sook Lee’s gently (for the most part) tintinnabular compositions, which sound very much like what I heard some time ago at a concert of the Emory Ensemble. Even the way she describes her pieces reminds me of this spiritually informed music: Ostinato in Springtime “evokes a lively motion of spring,” while The Movement starts with “four marimabas in unison, suggestive of a cold snap in winter.”
Lee’s is music not simply of nature but of nature animated and seen in the context of human interaction. Or at least it seems so to me. Ostinato is a constant in this music, as is a clearly demarcated sectionality that seems to reflect different natural states. Stillness, a sort of concerto for piano and percussion, is composed in the form of a rondo, a tranquil A section followed by a more agitated B section in the sequence A-B-a-bc-a-b, the small letters indicating variants with the addition of new thematic material. Refrain, the simplest work of all, is written in song form (A-B-A’), the last section a modification of the first. The addition of the solo flute in Moving On underscores the Eastern influence in Lee’s work, recalling the traditional Japanese flute music sakuhachi. As with this traditional music, Lee’s work is mesmerizing in its slowly unfolding, constantly accreting, often repetitious musical argument.
How different the music of Massimo Botter, right down to the title of the disc: Scream. Botter, too, writes for wind instruments. In fact, they are central to two of his pieces—Sentiero in un deserto di lava (“Passage in a Wasteland of Lava”), which is tantamount to a bass clarinet concerto, and At the end. . .the scream for oboe and 14 instruments. In both works, the solo instrument provides commentary as it traverses the often anxious landscape provided by the instrumental accompaniment. Bass clarinet and oboe are the human voices that cry out in these deserts of Botter’s making. But the voices are rarely pained or deeply agitated, more often seeming to reflect consternation, uncertainty. In Seven Blades, there is no commentary, just the severe acerbic music of the Pierrot lunaire ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano) plus percussion. Botter rightly evokes Schoenberg in this music; he and Alban Berg of the operas are the forefathers of Botter’s latter-day musical Expressionism. This is music where shifting sonorities, as skillfully conceived as they are, take a backseat to the portrayal of emotions, mostly the unsettling emotions of contemporary Western urban life.
Two very different musical approaches, then, expertly conveyed by the forces involved. The composers have worked closely with the ensembles that render their music, and that kind of synergy shows in the commitment and understanding of the performances. Both discs feature vivid recording, the Ravello disc upfront and powerfully intimate, the Stradivarius disc taken down in a more resonant acoustic, yet with presence and real impact. One thing is obvious: the contemporary music scene is nothing if not endlessly varied. Vive la difference!
— Lee Passarella

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