"We're famous." Thus, my co-conspirator and host Paul Janes-Brown brushed off my surprise at a personal note to me as host of Catch of the Day. The writer was Douglas Knehans, a composer previously unknown to me, hoping to drum up interest in his CD Unfinished Earth (Ablaze Records ar-00036), as yet in pre-release. What he said about the music intrigued me—so much so that I took a leap of faith and programmed not just a track or two, but an entire three-movement concerto for flute and orchestra, entitled Tempest, which runs a good 20 minutes.
A tempest for flute? Historically, composers have called on the flute and its shrill first cousin, the piccolo, to singe the envelope of a weather system with tongues of fire. (Think Verdi at curtain rise in Otello; think Wagner in the Ride of the Valkyries). But in a solo role, the flute mostly favors the pastoral manner of breeze and zephyr.
Without upending expectation, Knehans (NEE-ens) brings the instrument far deeper into the core of the storm, balancing its songful qualities against the throaty, feral possibilities of its lower register, seldom so thoroughly explored. The general contour of the piece is tried and true, with up-tempo outer sections that bookend the central adagio at the center. The movements bear the names of mighty winds of the Mediterranean, first the Ostro, which blows southerly, ruffling the Adriatic, evoked in playful chatter from the flute, over the increasingly threatening seas of the full orchestra. Next, the northwesterly Mistral, bane of Marseille, underscores the heavy tread of a funeral march as the soloist unfurls a noble song of remembrance. The incendiary, darting finale evokes the hot, gusty Etesian rushing across the Aegean onto the coast of Turkey.
Whatever a listener may make of the implied travelogue, as a storyteller in music, Knehans has a firm hand on the wheel. At 20 colorful minutes, Tempest feels spacious yet concise. Gareth Davies, principal flute of the London Symphony, rises to every challenge with exhilarating aplomb, setting the bar high for the peers I expect will be itching to follow his lead.. The Brno Philharmonic, led by Mikel Toms, gives a vivid account of the orchestral writing. I have yet to investigate the title piece of the album, the symphonic poem Unfinished Earth, which, as I understand it, contemplates the environmental condition of our battered yet perhaps still resilient planet.
Next up, the pianist Sarah Cahill, champion of 20th-century and living composers, with a generous track from her quadruple album Eighty Trips Around the Sun: Music by and for Terry Riley (IMH 020M). Riley ranks, of course, as a founding father of American minimalism. Yet in the 11-minute Fandango on the Heaven Ladder, he proves to have a lot more on his mind than self-perpetuating modular gestures. The surprising introduction is laid out like a chorale. Shortly, though, we segue into the bristling, Iberian dance mode Riley promises in his title. The improvisatory, capricious keyboard style seems to link to the prestidigitation of Domenico Scarlatti, a baroque master from Italy who made his career in the courts of Spain and Portugal. With about three minutes to go, Riley shifts gears again, injecting a hit of stride-piano boogie-woogie, much as Beethoven did—generations before Fats Domino and half a continent plus an ocean away—in the last of his 32 piano sonatas. Approaching the top rungs of the Heaven Ladder, the theatrics subside, and Riley spins out a coda of pure yearning, reaching across an infinity of purling arpeggios. A riveting creation, in a performance on which it would seem impossible to improve.
In honor of the season, we turned to the album Veni Domine (Deutsche Grammophon 479 7524), from the Sistine Chapel Choir under Massimo Palombella. The program ranges from Gregorian chant to pages by such stars in this welkin as Josquin, Palestrina, Allegri, and Jacob Clemens non Papa, whose handle ("not to be confused with the pope of the same name") I may not be the first to find more distinctive than his music. Our choice fell on "Beata viscera Mariae Virginis" (Sacred Womb of the Virgin Mary), by the shadowy 13th-century Pérotin or Perotinus, of Notre Dame in Paris. Though noted as a pioneer of polyphony, Pérotin indulges in nothing mathematical here. Mostly, we hear Cecilia Bartoli, native daughter of Rome and guest artist on this track only, floating the vocal line with the seraphic purity that is but one of her innumerable signature styles.
What could possibly follow? Why, a showstopper from Broadway's David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! (Masterworks Broadway 88985 40592 2). The current revival's raison d'être, as you may know, was Honolulu-born Bette Midler, whose meddling matchmaker had a lock on last season's Tony for best actress in a musical, just as Ben Platt, of Dear Evan Hansen, had a lock on best actor in a musical. All the same, my untallied vote went to Hyde Pierce if only for his unexpected solo turn before the curtain at the top of Act 2. Cut from the original production, never reinstated until now, "Penny in My Pocket" traces Horace's Horatio Alger rise from nothing to the dizzying net worth of "half a million." Thanks to Hyde Pierce's deadpan, feather-light delivery, the nimble shaggy-dog yarn accounted for three of my happiest minutes of 2017. Happy New Year, all! Or as we say hereabouts: Hau'oli Mahahiki Hou!