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New CDs From Musicians Who Play the Field

Alan Pierson conducts Alarm Will Sound at Carnegie Hall.
Alan Pierson conducts Alarm Will Sound at Carnegie Hall. (By Cory Weaver)
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-- Anne Midgette

"Walled Gardens": itsnotyouitsme (Caleb Burhans, Grey McMurray). "NOW": NOW Ensemble (Nico Muhly, et al.).

Indie-rock darlings such as Joanna Newsom, the Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens have been capturing attention for their forays into the orchestral world, but there's another crop of artists pushing back toward them from inside the classical music paddock. They are creating as-of-yet nameless categories of musical evolution, and some recently established a home for themselves with New Amsterdam Records.

The composers and musicians who appear on the label's two debut releases hold degrees from institutions such as Yale and Juilliard, and it may only be because of these associations that the discs are gaining notice from the classical music press. The four compositions on "Walled Gardens" from the duo itsnotyouitsme (Caleb Burhans: electric violin, voice, loops; Grey McMurray: electric guitar, loops) draw quicker comparison with Sigur R¿s than Steve Reich, though the latter's rhythmic patterns clearly get a nod during the disc's final track. The album isn't particularly original, but Burhans and McMurray pack quite a bit of thoughtful, ambient musing into its 33 minutes.

Setting up shop closer to the classical camp is the outstanding seven-member NOW Ensemble's debut, "NOW." Composers Nico Muhly, Patrick Burke, Mark Dancigers and Judd Greenstein, also the label's director, provide repertoire plenty deep enough to be dredged on multiple passes without crawling up inside its head so far it misplaces its soul. Though several of the compositions play their game out a bit too long, Greenstein's "Folk Music," with its cycles of flute, piano, clarinet and electric guitar, proves to be a disc highlight, as is Nico Muhly's "How About Now," which stands apart for its less weighty approach to the ensemble's colors.

New Amsterdam has separated itself from the usual classical roster with slicker packaging and a social-networking-style Web site that takes the music consumer far beyond just the recordings. The impact of such endeavors is still too young to judge, but the experiment is necessary and long overdue.

-- Molly Sheridan

Philip Glass: "Songs and Poems for Solo Cello." Wendy Sutter, cello.

It's a sad fact that sometimes a critic fails to appreciate a piece fully the first time through. When Wendy Sutter, the cellist from the Bang on a Can All-Stars, gave the world premiere of Philip Glass's "Songs and Poems for Solo Cello" at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York a year ago, I quite liked it. Hearing it again on recording -- the piece has been released as a slender (43-minute) CD on Glass's own label, paired with "Tissues (from Naqoyqatsi)" -- I found it not merely pleasant, but gripping.

Glass has always been both prolific and uneven, turning out pieces that are sometimes excellent, sometimes apparently written on autopilot. But "Songs and Poems" maintains an unusual degree of directness and warmth. Digging into the lower registers of the instrument, it takes flight in handfuls of notes, now gentle, now impassioned, variously evoking the minor-mode keening of klezmer music and the interior meditations of Bach's cello suites. There's little mere repetition here, and when it comes, it means something: like the rocking gestures of the seventh and final song, a kind of wistful balm to soak up the intensity of what has preceded it.

Sutter's performance contributes not a little to the intensity; that this piece is deeply personal (she and Glass are a couple) comes through loud and clear in the tanglings of her bow, the throaty richness of her tone. But "Tissues," a group of pieces written for Yo-Yo Ma, while not as strong as "Songs and Poems," suggests that Glass has a natural affinity for cello. On this recording, the instrument seems to respond to his demands in a way that the human voice has never quite been able to.

-- Anne Midgette


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