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Mark Abel: Time and Distance

San Francisco Classical Voice‘s Lou Fancher spoke with Mark Abel about his latest Delos recording, Time and Distance:

“During a phone conversation with composer Mark Abel, geometry explains the variegated art songs on his new CD, Time and Distance.

Oscillating within a triangle whose end points are classical, rock, and jazz music, the San Simeon-based musician’s fourth release under the Delos label curves to navigate text. Stark, sorrowful, soothing, soaring, and always poetic words written by Abel and California poets Kate Gale and Joanne Regenhardt project an array of warm colors quickened by the pinpoint sharpness of in-your-face subjects. There are the skewed frames of sexual or environmental assault, the startling angularity of suicide or forgiveness, the downward slope of lost dreams and urban landscapes, among other topics.

The topography of Abel’s music is variable; informed by melody, harmony, metronomic or asymmetric rhythms, electro-acoustic or minimalist structures that mesh to carve grand and diminutive moments. Text and score merge or counter each other not to do battle but even so, the effect is haunting. The five works’ timeless sounds linger like “auditory images” of remembered people, planets, spiritual spaces, and histories.”

Lou Fancher, San Francisco Classical Voice

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Amelia Haygood, Delos Founder (1919-2007)

Amelia Haygood, Delos Founder (1919-2007)

“Greek mythology tells us that Apollo set out from the island of Delos every morning with his lyre in hand, bringing light, music and healing to the world. We at Delos share the awareness that our world needs the balm of music.” —Amelia S. Haygood, Delos Founder (1919-2007)

The above quote from Delos Founder Amelia Haygood has been at the center of Delos operations more than ever in recent days. With the release of Carol Rosenberger’s new memoir, To Play Again, outlining her musical journey to recovery after polio, the connection of music and healing has been at the forefront. In fact, Delos artist Lucy Mauro used the same quote in her review of the book and then turned it to say that Amelia would likely say today that “the world needs the inspirational story of To Play Again.”

Leonidas Kavakos

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve

And so it’s no surprise that the recent story of violinist Leonidas Kavakos (who has a Delos release of his own) bringing the healing power of music into a neonatal intensive care unit caught our attention. At the request of the doctor, Kavakos played Bach for the infants in the ward:

“After a few minutes, a miracle happened. Their heartbeats began to calm down and the music proved to be a medicine. Some of the infants were only hours or days old. Yet their reaction to the music was immediate. ‘It was an experience that I will never forget,’ said Kavakos.”

Amelia, who was a highly respected clinical psychologist before she switched careers to start a record label, considered Delos’ “Family Classics” to be among our most important ongoing projects. Our “Baby Needs” recordings have received worldwide recognition as the finest series ever produced for the very young.

Perchance to Dream, a Lullaby Album for Children and Adults, was the precursor in this series, and in Amelia’s words “was welcomed for every human situation, beginning with the pre-natal. Parents found that it had a remarkably positive effect on infant behavior. We are gratified that the calming effect of this CD has provided solace to the very ill in hospital and hospice. Our aim with the entire ‘Baby Needs’ series is to call parents’ attention to the enrichment potential of such music for the very young. It has brought comfort and beauty to all ages; and parents comment that they are experiencing great music along with their children, having missed the opportunity themselves in schools that had cut out music programs.”

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Mortality Mansions: Songs of Love and Loss after 60

As a capstone to Mortality Mansions, the music on this album concludes with a setting by Garfein of a poem by Jane Kenyon, sung by the soprano Marnie Breckenridge, with Dimitri Dover on piano. The poem, “Otherwise,” is one of Kenyon’s best-known and most moving: a paean to the precious quotidian pleasures of life while we’re still living, with acute awareness that things could be, and soon will be, otherwise. Breckenridge, a longtime admirer of Kenyon’s poetry, sings the piece with knowing sensitivity, caressing the delicate lines about having breakfast, walking the dog, working, and lying in bed with her mate, an unnamed Donald Hall.

“I had read ‘Otherwise’ as a poem before, but I don’t think I fully appreciated its depth until I sang it,” Breckenridge says. “It seems very simple, but it’s profoundly deep. To sing it, I had to peel away layer after layer until I got to the core and sang in an almost spoken way – not at all operatic.”

Ending this album with the voice of Jane Kenyon serves as reminder of Kenyon’s presence throughout Mortality Mansions. Created by Hall and Garfein, it is largely about Kenyon, a great American poet whose own stature is undiminished by her impact on Hall throughout and 14 well past their years together.

Mortality Mansions was first performed, in an early iteration of eight parts, in a concert by Slattery and Dover that Garfein oversaw in a school down the road from that farmhouse where Hall’s grandmother and mother were born and Hall still lives. Hall took part in the event, reading the poems in the cycle, much as he has done in the second portion of this recording. At the conclusion of the evening, Garfein drove Hall back to his house. Hall, weary from the undertaking, sat silently through the ride. Garfein pulled into the farmhouse drive and turned off the car, and Hall, looking straight ahead, said, “I wish Jane could have seen this.”

Notes on Mortality Mansions by David Hajdu

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Below is the full interview with Carol Rosenberger by Robert Schulslaper published by Fanfare Magazine:

The Land of Legend is home to brave heroes and heroines who struggle valiantly against seemingly insurmountable obstacles before emerging triumphant. Pianist and Delos General Director Carol Rosenberger may not have had to vanquish evil sorcerers, ravenous demons, or vicious ogres, but her essential being was threatened by a crippling disease, polio, that only years of therapy and an indomitable will could subdue. Her memoir, To Play Again, movingly recounts this life-altering experience, along the way introducing us to the unforgettable people who supported her throughout her difficult journey.

Why did you wait until now to tell your story?

I began writing this book some thirty-five years ago. I sent a few draft chapters to my mother and father, and put a copy of the typewritten pages into my vast filing cabinet. My younger brother, Gary, was going through our parents’ belongings after they died in the 1990s. He came across those draft chapters, and immediately called to tell me that I must finish the book. He had those pages photocopied, and sent them to me. By that time, I also had copies of letters I’d written to my parents, to Webster and Lilian Aitken, to Amelia Haygood, and another close friend. Those letters helped me to recall exact detail, and so I worked on the book, intermittently, from the late 1990s through 2015.

Certainly most people know how devastating polio can be, but I’m tempted to say that it’s even worse for those who formerly relied on fine motor coordination in their choice of vocation. Before you were stricken, was playing the piano completely automatic or instinctual?

When I first started to play the piano, I thought only of the beautiful sounds and what those combinations created. Between age ten and age twelve or so, I was aware of developing technique, thanks to the extensive piano exercise and étude material I’d been asked to master. But after that, I was mainly aware of what I wanted to convey in the music I was playing—beautiful shapes, sparkling clarity, rich figuration, deep warmth—and just assumed my muscles would carry out the intent with clarity and appropriate emotion. That all changed after the polio attack, of course. It took many years to figure out alternate neuromuscular routes back to piano playing.

Can you describe how you identify the muscles that can still be mobilized?

After all these years, I can say that I just get as close as possible to what I sense as the musical content. I’ve long since become used to some of the neuromuscular responses not being entirely satisfying to me, but my approach is one of eternal optimism. It’s as if I were saying to myself, “Maybe this is the time it’ll come just a little closer to the ideal!” That approach probably won’t change, as long as I can still go to the keyboard.

As you gradually recovered your facility and assimilated all the “work-arounds” described in the book, were you able once again to just immerse yourself in the music without constantly supervising your technique?

I have incorporated the “work-arounds” well enough that I rarely think about them. It takes me longer to learn a new piece of music than it would take someone with normal neuromuscular equipment. It even takes me longer to bring back a piece I’ve played in the past. But I’ve gotten used to the process. And yes, I can just immerse myself in the music and use what I’ve got!

I’m curious about the therapeutic regimen you practiced that employed diagonal as opposed to vertical or horizontal movements. It reminded me of Tai Chi. Could that sort of “moving mediation” be helpful?

I tried several approaches such as Tai Chi through the years, but what really worked were the exercises physical therapists did with me—most dramatically, the diagonal patterns. Here’s an example: If you’re standing up, arms at your sides, move your right arm straight up in front, so that your arm is vertical and beside your right ear. Now let it go back down again. That is a straight pattern. Next, move your right arm (keeping the arm straight, and keeping your body straight) upwards and across your body to the left side, so that the right hand is pointing above, and to the left of, your left shoulder. Now move it back down again along the same route. That is a diagonal pattern. When one does a whole series of such movements, against just the right amount of resistance, the diagonal versions encourage more motor neurons to join in. Sounds simple, but proved to be miraculous!

You also mention that water therapy played a significant part in your recovery.

Oh, yes, water exercises were crucial during my many physical therapy years, and still are! One can encourage motor neurons to a much greater extent when the muscles are supported by water. I can go through a variety of exercise patterns without damaging any of the sensitive areas, thanks to the perfect and steady support, and smooth resistance, the water offers. I’ve had a little warm water outdoor spa for some thirty years. Originally it was in my garage in Santa Monica, and now it’s in my backyard here in Sonoma.

I didn’t know that the polio virus would seek out those muscles that were getting the most use, in your case, a pianist’s hands, arms, and shoulders. But how about someone like Itzhak Perlman, whose legs are obviously seriously compromised while his hands and arms are apparently unimpaired?

The polio virus attacks in two stages. The first stage, the non-paralytic stage, seems like a flu, with fever, and lasts a few days. Then you get up and move around, thinking you’re recovering nicely. If, a few days later, there is a second fever period of the same virus, that is the paralytic stage. The damage during the paralytic stage depends on what you were doing in between the two fever periods. Perlman was four years old, so I’m assuming that he was happily running around like a typical four-year-old, glad to be feeling better. Maybe playing the violin a little, but at age four, certainly not much. In my case, at age twenty-one, I was practicing the piano many hours per day, trying to make up for the practice time I’d lost during the first fever period. Hence the way the virus targeted the motor neurons I needed most for piano playing.

Are you aware of other pianists who had polio and who faced the sort of challenges you have in order to return to an active concert career?

No, I’m not.

Did James DePreist, a great friend of yours and another polio survivor also play the piano? (By the way, did you know that he had a role in a film, New Year’s Day?)

James DePreist wasn’t a pianist, no. As I recall, he was traveling as a conductor, and thus moving around a lot, when the polio hit him. When Jimmy and I were making our first recording together (Hindemith: The Four Temperaments, in London) we discussed the after-effects of polio. We found it a relief to share with each other the constant need to fight post-polio fatigue. I always felt apologetic about it, and noticed that he did, too. No, I hadn’t heard of the film! (Just interrupted myself to order it from Amazon…)

Are you familiar with the Polish phrase “Nie Dam Sie”? It means something like “I shall never submit.” Artur Rubinstein adopted it as his motto quite early in life. It seems it applies equally to you. Do you know that in his youth he tried to hang himself but luckily didn’t succeed? That failure instantaneously taught him to cherish the fragility, beauty, and value of life, an epiphany that stayed with him for the rest of his days.

I haven’t heard that phrase! I don’t remember my Polish grandmother using it. I didn’t know about Artur Rubinstein’s attempted suicide, either! (My psychology-professional friends used to mention an anger component in suicide. I never felt angry; only dismayed and discouraged.) I certainly do recognize the fragility of life, and greatly cherish its beauty and value. Maybe even more since I had to fight so hard for any kind of physical stability, and tried for so many years to accept what had happened to me. I never considered giving up the fight to get my piano playing back, despite suggestions from others that giving up that fight would be the rational thing to do.

Did you know that Edward Bredshall, your first “serious” teacher, was once known as “The Baby Pianist?” He was apparently a prodigy who both performed and composed as a very young child. It’s also interesting to me that he taught Ruth Laredo (and probably many more well-known pianists).

Bredshall never talked about his childhood, and I didn’t know about the “Baby Pianist” until you sent me that precious sheet music graphic! I’m not really surprised, though. He was brilliant. He had great empathy for child pianists, and I certainly was far from the only one. “Ruthie” Meckler Laredo was four years younger, and we both played on some of Bredshall’s Concerto Evenings. Also featured on those programs were Eleanor Lipkin (Seymour Lipkin’s sister), and a young prodigy, Annette Goldman.

You’ve had two other famous musicians as teachers besides Bredshall; Webster Aitken, and Nadia Boulanger. Did they ever play for you when you were studying with them?

Bredshall was the only teacher who played for me during a lesson. Webster Aitken wanted to draw a musical statement out of me, rather than demonstrating. With Boulanger, we talked about musical structure, and the only thing she played would be a fragment to illustrate a musical principle.

Bredshall was also determined to expand my education. After working with me mostly on exercises and études when I was ten and eleven, he began to spend an increasing amount of time talking to me. Over the six years that followed, our weekly sessions were about two hours long. We’d have an hour or so for the actual lesson, and then he’d spend up to another hour talking to me, telling stories about his time in Europe, going through an opera that was scheduled for broadcast the following Saturday, telling me what recordings I should listen to, suggesting books I should read, giving me his political views, and much more.

Nadia Boulanger had a reputation as a superb but very demanding teacher. I don’t doubt that she maintained her high standard with you but she was at the same time very solicitous of your physical infirmity.

Mademoiselle treated me as if I were one of her beloved godchildren. When I was in the hospital, she sent me wild strawberries from the Forest of Fontainebleau. She was Catholic, and was having prayers said for me all during the acute phase of my illness. She brought her own doctor to see me. When I could finally get to her flat, the famous 36 rue Ballu, for lessons, she went to great lengths to make me comfortable. And even more than that, she treated me as if I were still an important musical talent, even though I’d lost everything, as far as anyone could see. She encouraged me to think through the piano masterpieces I valued most, hearing them in my mind’s ear. That was when I started “living inside” Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, for instance, even though I couldn’t play at all. These were priceless gifts she gave me—gifts I treasure to this day.

In Webster Aitken’s case, although his name was familiar to me I didn’t picture him as a cowboy. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration but I’m sure you realize I’m referring to his Western mode of dress, which made for a surprising juxtaposition with his love for and practice of classical music. I guess I’m more narrow-minded than I thought!

Well, he looked stunning in his Western garb! And I suppose it came from his love for the Southwest, especially Santa Fe, where he and his wife, Lilian, had their summer home. They spent as much time as possible there in Santa Fe. Webster once joked that if he ever had to become a hermit, he would choose Santa Fe as the venue. I’m eternally grateful to Webster and Lilian for giving me so much of their time and attention over the two extended summers I visited them in Santa Fe. They both tried valiantly to help me back, in a variety of ways—such a generous commitment!

I’m extremely fortunate to have had wonderful friends and family, throughout my life, and throughout my long ordeal. Many whom I write about are gone now…Amelia used to say that immortality is the extent to which those left behind can incorporate the qualities they most admired in the departed person. That insight of hers comes to mind every day, as I think of beloved family and friends who were such an important and influential part of my life.

Would you say that Amelia Haygood was the person who had the greatest effect on your life? Although you pay homage to your parents and many others it is Amelia to whom the book is dedicated.

Amelia came along when I needed her the most. She was not only a fine psychologist, but had worked with wounded veterans at the VA hospital in Los Angeles. She helped me to understand what had happened during the years since the polio attack, and what I was facing after the long struggle. She encouraged me in a way no one else could have done. Imagine talking someone with my handicap into playing for her colleagues, partly because of what it would do for them! The emphasis was on their struggles with young people in trouble. She kept telling me how much I could change an exhausting day for these colleagues and friends with just a bit of great classical music—played live by someone as devoted to it as I was. It worked! The very act of playing informally so many times under these circumstances, when I thought I was also doing something for others, enabled me to find new neuromuscular pathways, and led eventually to my going back onstage.

During the many years I knew Amelia, I kept telling her that she should write her own story—it was fascinating, and she was a very good writer. But she was always focused on others, and never got around to writing about herself. So the next best thing I could do was to include some stories about her within my own memoir.

After I recorded the Beethoven Sonata, Op. 111, together with the Appassionata, we had just finished editing the album when I got news that Webster had died. So, of course, I dedicated the recording to him. Then at the time of my mother’s death, I dedicated a special new recording called Reverie to her. This was music that we all found calming and reassuring, and I felt strongly that her beauty of spirit would be with me always. When my father died suddenly, three years later, I had just finished a recording of Barcarolles, called Singing on the Water.  The album begins with Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean, and includes a Barcarolle written for me by Richard Rodney Bennett, which Dad particularly liked. Since I felt that in some important ways my father had always been my “North Star,” I dedicated the album to him. When it came time for the book’s dedication, there was no question in my mind; it would be dedicated to Amelia.

I don’t suppose you ever dreamt that you would be running a record company one day, a position that directly resulted from your friendship with Amelia.

From its very beginning in 1973, Delos was a mission for Amelia. Everyone who knew her recognized her mission as a remarkable one. Here was a psychologist who’d been working with underprivileged kids in trouble, and teaching social workers and probation officers how to work with families. Now she was trying to create a platform for American classical artists! She and her husband had long been record collectors and classical music enthusiasts, and as she met American musicians, she was concerned that almost none of them had commercial recordings. Her friends and former colleagues from the psychology and social work fields all wanted to help in Amelia’s Delos mission. Not long after I made my own first recording—fascinating piano music of Karol Szymanowski that was virtually unknown in America—I found that I could also be helpful in the recording studio. I learned how to edit, and how to produce a recording. When Amelia and John Eargle, the Delos Chief Engineer, both died in 2007, within six weeks of each other, I recognized that I had to take over or “Baby” Delos, as Amelia always called it, couldn’t survive. So I did, and the learning curve was steep!

Where do you think Delos is headed now in light of the industry’s technological transformation?

We’re making digital downloads available in various formats, including high definition wave files where possible. Both Amelia and John Eargle would be delighted about that. I think Amelia would be surprised at how streaming has taken over as the way a lot of people listen to music. Certainly, that makes the financial model very different from the circulation of physical CDs. But since she always wanted to help make great classical music available to as many fellow human beings as possible, she would have a positive view of this development. The music educator part of me feels the same way!

Whatever the medium, Amelia always vowed to keep important recordings in the Delos catalog. When she and her husband were collecting records, they were sometimes disappointed to find that a title had been deleted from a label’s catalog. I’m sure she’d be happy that our current Delos catalog maintains availability of 600-going-on-700 recordings, including legacies of such now-departed greats as Arleen Auger, John Browning, Eugene Ormandy, Janos Starker, Dmitri Hvorostovsky… well, it’s a long list by now. She would also be happy about our recordings of wonderful, currently active artists; that too is a long list!

Listening to several of your own piano recordings for Delos, I was taken not only with your playing but also with the beautiful Bösendorfer you’d chosen.

I fell in love with the sound of a Bösendorfer piano when I was in Vienna, and would walk over to the piano maker’s showroom on Bösendorferstrasse, where there were a few practice rooms with medium-sized pianos which could be rented by the hour. I was enchanted by the way the Bösendorfer could sing—i.e. the sound didn’t fall off as quickly after the hammer struck the string as it did in most pianos, and it even had a subtle swell, thanks to the construction of the piano.

Then many years later, in 1979, when I was living in Los Angeles, and performing and recording, I went to the one piano store in the Los Angeles area that had a Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand, planning to rent it for my Water Music of the Impressionists recording sessions. But I was so enchanted with its singing sound that instead of renting it, I made a long-term financial commitment to buy the piano! “Boesi” is still with me, and we still make music together just about every day.

Do you still perform?

No, I stopped performing in public once I took over the directorship of Delos. Amazingly, considering my late start post-polio, I enjoyed some forty years of performing and recording the sublime music I felt so privileged to “live within.” I also enjoyed sharing this music in other ways, especially in college and university workshops during my tours. But now I play just for myself, almost every day, and occasionally for a friend or two.

I understand you’ve recorded a few tracks for a new CD.

Carol Rosenberger and Janelle DeStefano

Carol Rosenberger and Janelle DeStefano Recording Mark Abel’s “The Invocation”

Yes! I’m a fan of composer Mark Abel’s music, of which Delos has now made four recordings. For the latest one, Time and Distance, I offered to play on the first two tracks: The Invocation with mezzo Janelle DeStefano, and Those Who Loved Medusa with soprano Hila Plitmann and percussionist Bruce Carver. I loved being back on the “other side” of the microphone, and participating in this remarkable album!

When you resumed concertizing early in your recovery, you were anxious about how your playing would be received but you were pleasantly surprised by the unanimously enthusiastic reviews. So my question, albeit probably an unanswerable one is, how much better do you think your performances could have been if you’d never contracted polio?

Wow, I have no idea! I guess I had to stop thinking about what might have been, and just focus on what I could possibly do (it turned out to be more than most people expected). That has been the firm goal, and I think I learned a lot in the painful process that I have been able to pass along to others, especially to students who wanted to improve their musical understanding and performance skills.

If I can linger for a moment on preconcert anxiety, it occurs to me that a contributing factor might be that you, like many musicians, are extremely self-critical.

Ha! You can say that again! I’m sure that’s one reason that many artists can’t be objective about their own work. It’s very interesting that you bring this up now because I’ve just come across a passage I’d had to discard from the book that addresses this very question. If you don’t mind I’d like to quote it in full:

“Can one ever be objective about one’s own work? I’m not at all sure of the answer to that question. Even with recordings, the very knowledge that it is one’s own work colors or distorts perception. The passage of time between finishing the work and evaluating it, though helpful, still doesn’t allow for true objectivity.

A case in point that always makes me laugh concerns one of the pieces on the Water Music of the Impressionists recording. From the time of the very first playback, I wished that I had been able to play that piece more the way I had envisioned it. A couple of years later, I was riding in a car with someone who had tuned into the local classical music radio station, which happened to be playing some pianist’s version of the piece. I was thinking to myself “Now that’s the way I wish I’d played it!”

At the end, the announcer gave the name of the piece; then added, “played by Carol Rosenberger.” I was stunned. It was the only time I had ever listened to that recording without knowing it was my own. If I had known from the beginning that it was my version, then fear and anxiety—mixed with my knowledge of the neuromuscular workarounds, and who knows what—might well have kept me from listening to it objectively.”

That’s a great story and you might like to know that the same thing once happened to Glenn Gould. Obviously you’d accomplished a lot if you could find yourself enthusing over the performance of that “mystery” pianist! Not to underestimate the importance of sheer will power, your eventual success was largely dependent on grueling physical and mental work, both at and away from the keyboard. One technique that helped was the intense bar-by-bar memorization you undertook to insure that you could start anywhere in the score if your infirmities temporarily got the better of you.

One thing I know for sure is that this careful preparation enabled me to go much farther than I otherwise could have gone. It was the intense bar-by-bar memorization that allowed me to take full advantage of the adrenaline time stretch (fight or flight) during performance. The adrenaline time stretch while playing material that I had practiced mentally in slow motion was what allowed me to find neuromuscular pathways that I never would have found otherwise! I’ve often thought that this process had something in common with extreme athletes and the way they learn to use the adrenaline time stretch to accomplish feats that might be considered impossible. After all, what I was doing was supposed to be impossible…

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The Heyman Center for the Humanities presents the full, live video presentation of the world premiere performance of Mortality Mansions, a collaboration of U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall and GRAMMY® Award-winning composer Herschel Garfein:

Mortality Mansions: Songs of Love and Loss after 60

Mortality Mansions: Songs of Love and Loss after 60

In this unique Delos album, two-time Grammy Award-winning composer, librettist, and producer Herschel Garfein introduces Mortality Mansions: a stunning new song cycle setting poems by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall.

Hall’s plain-spoken, yet profound poetry reveals his candid perspectives on aging, with its inevitable physical decline, fears, personal losses, and emotional trials. Yet he balances these negative aspects with such persisting joys and pleasures as loving companionship and physical intimacy.

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“Abel combines tuneful original passages with rock and jazz elements to form unique tonal structures … a colorful blend of styles … a powerful emotional punch.”

“(In the Rear View Mirror, Now) shows his mastery of tragedy as composer, musician and poet.”

Mark Abel: Time and Distance

Composer Mark Abel’s new disc, Time and Distance, contains the world premieres of two song cycles and three substantial individual works I hope to hear at a live recital in the near future. Recitals need not be filled with museum pieces. There are audience-worthy new works being written every day. Abel combines tuneful original passages with rock and jazz elements to form unique tonal structures. With a colorful blend of styles, he communicates the nature of each work, often with a powerful emotional punch. Mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano and soprano Hila Plitmann are “crossover” singers who straddle the void between concert, opera, and musical theater. Both sing with the kind of diction that makes it possible to walk across the room or even do a chore and not miss a word of the poetry.

Abel wrote both the music and the lyrics for The Invocation and The Benediction, strong pieces enveloping and anchoring the two song cycles that form the main dishes of Abel’s program. In the opening piece, The Invocation, the mezzo reminds us of the answerless questions posed by modern existence. Life offers us a void that gives no hints on how to achieve happiness during our sojourn here. Must we earn happiness? Carol Rosenberger’s fluent playing is the perfect accompaniment to DeStefano’s rose-velvet tones. In the closer, The Benediction, Abel’s hope for a brighter future lights our land “from sea to shining sea.” The bright, sunny tones of Hila Plitmann and pianist Tali Tadmor bring hope to what would otherwise be contemplation of our era’s many inadequacies.

Plitmann continues with Those Who Loved Medusa, a song that has a text by Los Angeles poet Kate Gale. It speaks to the tragedy of so many young women who have only recently begun to speak out with “Me too” stories of sexual assault. Just as Medusa was found guilty when Poseidon raped her in ancient Greece, we still blame the victim in cases of sexual aggression. Although we think of Medusa as a horrible monster, she was a beautiful girl before Poseidon’s wife, Athena, cursed her and changed the strands of her hair into snakes. Plitmann’s unadorned silvery high notes remind the listener that young girls are a precious, beautiful treasure not to be wasted. Carol Rosenberger accompanies her with virtuosic style and Bruce Carver’s delicate percussion gives the work a feeling of Hellenic antiquity.

In the Rear View Mirror, Now is a cycle of three songs that speak to our modern condition. These days we are apt to listen to a recital, not in the concert hall, but where we so often hear music instead, in the car. First, Plitmann, Tadmor, and organist Mark Abel tell of a romance doomed by a clash of personalities. Next, they lament the lost world of North Beach, Chinatown, and the Haight. In the third song they deplore the insubstantial friendships of the modern era and finish with, “They’d have kicked you off the Titanic’s lifeboat if it came to that.” As a journalist for more than two decades, Abel has seen a great deal of the world and he often reflects its grimy underbelly. Here, he shows his mastery of tragedy as composer, musician, and poet.

Abel’s song cycle The Ocean of Forgiveness contains five poems by Joanne Regenhardt that describe the glory of nature and some of the joys and sorrows felt by those who live in it. The titles are: “Desert Wind,” “Sally’s Suicide,” “In Love with the Sky,” “Reunion,” and “Patience.” The final song sums it up best: “We wait until the leaves are gone and every shell washed clean by the ocean of forgiveness.” The poems are part of Regenhardt’s Canadian-published collection Soundings.

I was particularly pleased by DeStefano’s exquisite beauty of tone and her variety of vocal colors as she and Tadmor performed “Patience,” which ends with “Until together we will love the world.” If only we could. What we can do is listen to the music on this well-recorded disc and contemplate both word and tone. This is a recording to keep in the car for meaningful listening.

—Maria Nockin, Fanfare
Copyright © 2018 Fanfare, Inc
Re-printed with permission

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“The musical vocabulary … is approachable, mostly easy on the ear and … somewhat timeless.”

“Myths have fierce contemporary relevance, and nowhere more so than (in the song Those Who Loved Medusa), where the rape … plugs directly into the ‘Me Too’ movement.”

Mark Abel: Time and Distance

Composer Mark Abel is clearly at home writing for the human voice. The musical vocabulary on display here is approachable, mostly easy on the ear and also somewhat timeless. The first piece, The Invocation, sets a text by the composer on life’s ambiguities. At once an acceptance of the human condition and an extended musical question mark, it is given in an assured performance by mezzo Janelle DeStefano. The close recording seems to refer more to popular recorded music balances but is nonetheless involving, and the rapport between DeStefano and Carol Rosenberger is clear.

Moving from a portrait of our lot as humans (“It is a trek. We see that now”) to Greek legend, Abel sets a text by Kate Gale, Those Who Loved Medusa. Not his first setting of Gale (see The Palm Trees Are Restless on the Delos disc Home Is a Harbor), this piece adds percussion to the mix, from the crotale of the opening to the ritualistic pounding of a drum in the background. Myths have fierce contemporary relevance, and nowhere more so than here, where the rape of Medusa plugs directly into the “Me too” movement. Grammy-winning soprano Hila Plitmann is a superbly assured interpreter, fiercely focused in the disturbing subject matter. And disturbing it certainly should be.

The text for the extended song-cycle In The Rear View Mirror, Now is again furnished by the composer. The addition of an organ (played by the composer) to the voice and piano adds a certain depth to the sound picture, as well as casting a certain haunting shadow. The three poems are linked by “a shared umbrella of disillusion,” in the composer’s own words. Plitmann’s upper register is tested and comes across with laser-like precision yet without ever sounding uncomfortable. The second song, “The World Clock,” is a requiem for a city ushered in by an “iPhone World Clock”; but the most powerful song is the final “The Nature of Friendship”. Plitmann’s unerring sense of line enables her to narrate the song most effectively; the text slips in a nice reference to Schigolch in “Lulu’s London garret”.

Ceding the text to former opera singer Joanne Regenhardt, the song-cycle The Ocean of Forgiveness is a five-song exploration of Nature and its power. The smokier voice of a mezzo (DeStefano) is the perfect choice for this world where simple, unaccompanied vocal gestures can speak volumes. The musical language itself is more complex than in the pieces heard so far; the desolation of “Sally’s Suicide” is palpable, while it is the striking simplicity of “In Love with the Sky” that makes it all the more powerful. Tali Tadmor’s piano playing is particularly striking in this song-cycle. The piano has a voice of its own, one might contend, and a strong voice at that. The single piano line that opens “Patience” is an incredibly poignant example.

Finally, The Benediction (text by the composer). It is a cry for “truth and reason” in an uncertain America and holds at its heart a message of hope, young people who with open hearts can take us forwards. Plitmann’s performance is searing in its intensity.

A most varied collection, therefore, from a composer who clearly finds his best expression through setting texts that resonate with him on a deep level.

—Colin Clarke, Fanfare
Copyright © 2018 Fanfare, Inc
Re-printed with permission

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Mortality Mansions: Songs of Love and Loss after 60

With the second piece of Mortality Mansions, “When I Was Young”, the song cycle shifts into the present tense and dives into the themes of ardor and eros, commitment and loss, in its aging characters. “When I was young and sexual/I looked forward to a cool Olympian age/for release from my obsessions,” Slattery sings with the plaintive clarity that distinguishes him as one of the most artfully communicative singers of contemporary concert music. “At sixty,” he continues, “the body’s one desire/sustains my pulse, not to mention/my groin…

Let us pull back the blanket,
slide off our bluejeans,
assume familiar positions,
and celebrate lust in Mortality Mansions.

Garfein had been toying with various titles for the cycle until, after he had several of the songs finished, he woke up one night with the final words of “When I Was Young” echoing in his head. “ ‘Mortality Mansions’ – that captures it all, the whole essence of the piece,” says Garfein. “It’s about sex and romance and bereavement, the joy in living day to day with someone you are entwined with in the deepest ways – emotionally, intellectually, and physically – knowing, all the while, that death could be around the corner and will, finally, come. The image of that final phrase from ‘When I Was Young’ suggests both grandeur and a sense of inevitable decline. Knowing that the decline is inevitable and, in some ways, already here, only enhances the intensity of the moment and the importance of enjoying it.”

Notes on Mortality Mansions by David Hajdu

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English Works for Viola and Orchestra

Rob Barnett adds a second MusicWeb International review for Hong-Mei Xiao’s English Works for Viola and Orchestra recording:

“Three works by British composers, each for viola and orchestra but only one dubbed a Concerto. Avoidance of that term is justified in the case of the Vaughan Williams which is a series of instantly engaging and artfully limned mood miniatures. As for the Bax Phantasy it could have been called a ‘Concerto’ and no-one would have blinked. … Hong-Mei Xiao has a stirring broad tone and her instrument is recorded with close-up impact. Neither does the orchestra… lack vibrant power. … The Delos Phantasy epitomises success in its surrender to Bax’s romantic sun-soaked peace (13:00-14.00) as well as his martial kinetic excitement. The performance has great torque with an eager response to the mercurial mood shifts. There is much to enjoy here. … There’s a lot going for this collection: conviction from the musicians, well documented and sporting immediate sound.”

Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International

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Lynn René Bayley reviews Carol Rosenberger’s To Play Again memoir on The Art Music Lounge:

“This is a remarkable memoir on several levels. … Woven through her story of excruciating pain, weakness, collapses and occasional immobility is Rosenberger’s indomitable, never-say-die spirit, inherited from her father. … When she couldn’t play piano, she taught it. When she could do neither, she studied the music and let it play through her mind–anything to stay connected to what she loved most. … If you love the arts at all, this is a must-read.”

Lynn René Bayley, Art Music Lounge

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