Playing Renaissance music on Renaissance instruments is a pleasant enough way to earn a living -- particularly for a group like the New York quartet Calliope, which is one of the best in the field. But the time must come, inevitably, when they long for something new to perform.
In 1982, a member of Calliope went to a concert by the Canadian Brass and heard a performance of "Hornsmoke." This piece, written for the group by Peter Schickele, combines musical and theatrical elements with the members of the brass ensemble taking speaking roles as well as playing their instruments.
Could Schickele do for the recorder and krummhorn what he had done for the trombone and tuba? He was approached for a commissioned work, and the result, now available on Vanguard VSD 71278, is "Bestiary: A Music Theater Piece for Renaissance Ensemble." Based mainly on T.H. White's "Bestiary," a charming translation of a medieval book about animals, the piece also draws texts from the Book of Genesis and other sources. Schickele uses both ancient and modern styles for his eight little portraits in words and sound of the frog, elephant, hedgehog, unicorn, whale and other creatures -- an answer to Saint-Sae ns' "Carnival of the Animals" that is both contemporary and archaic in sound, completely beguiling in its overall effect.
Schickele narrates the texts while the four members of Calliope provide the sounds. They also do visual imitations of the animals, using their odd-shaped instruments for the elephant's trunk, the unicorn's horn, the frog's flickering tongue -- but not on the record. This is one piece of chamber music that will definitely be enhanced when a video edition becomes available. Meanwhile, the audio format gives satisfaction. On side two, Schickele's Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, a chastely classical work enriched with sounds from jazz and folk music, is less spectacular but no less satisfying.
For those who like pigeonholes, the one where Schickele fits as a serious composer is neo-Romanticism, a hot trend of the '70s that seems to be establishing itself even more firmly in the '80s. Strictly, some of Schickele's work might be called neo-Baroque or even neo-Renaissance -- but that amounts to splitting hairs.
The other hot trend of our time is minimalism, in the style of Philip Glass and Steve Reich -- a style that Glass may be leaving after riding it to fame and fortune, but one that others have eagerly picked up. The most promising of what we might call the neo-minimalists, John Adams, seems to be evolving toward a mixture of minimalism and romanticism, a trend-blend calculated to make many listeners hypnotically happy.
His "Grand Pianola," expertly performed by Ransom Wilson and the Solisti New York (Angel DS 37345; cassette 4DS 37345), is a prime example. It begins in the minimalist style with a handful of notes repeating themselves obsessively, trying to evolve into a full-scale melody. There are partial successes and setbacks, distributed through three movements, and it ends with the melody emerging triumphant in a splash of sound that includes horns, pianos and a wordless women's chorus. For some sensibilities, it can become obsessive (that's part of what minimalism is about), and most listeners will find it a pleasant experience. Reich's "Eight Lines," on the same record, gives a good idea of where Adams is coming from and how far he has come.
Now that England and China have reached an agreement and the capitalist future of Hong Kong is guaranteed for the next half-century, fans of the Hong Kong Philharmonic can relax. There must be such fans in Washington, since Miran Kojian, former concertmaster of the National Symphony, has become the concertmaster in Hong Kong. On the evidence of its latest recording, he has joined a capable organization with an interesting repertoire. The record also shows that the Hong Kong Philharmonic has already anticipated the anschluss from Peking, where neo-Romanticism is also flourishing -- perhaps not so neo, since China did not go through the experience of Schoenberg, Stockhausen and all that.
That recording, issued by Hong Kong Records and available in this country on a compact disc from Harmonia Mundi (HK 8.240292), is the "Long March" Symphony by Ding Shan-de, a tribute to Mao Tse-tung's military exploit in 1934-1935 when he took his army from Hunan in the south almost to the Great Wall in the north. Considering its subject, it is appropriate that the symphony is very long -- 66 minutes. Its melodic material is drawn from the folk music of the various provinces through which Mao and his army marched. Sometimes the music sounds like Dvorak (an approved model in China), sometimes like Alan Hovhaness, an American who uses eastern material in symphonic forms. Ding is (like most living composers, it seems) a former student of Nadia Boulanger, and his work shows the technical competence one expects from that school. Yoshikazu Fukumura conducts an enjoyable performance and the compact disc sound is excellent.
Those who are interested in the blending of eastern and western music might also want to sample two other new compact discs from Hong Kong: "Ambush on All Sides" (HK 8.240232), in which traditional Chinese music is arranged for symphony orchestra, and "The Butterfly Lovers" (HK 8.240223), a violin concerto based on an old folk tale. In this and two companion pieces ("The Goddess of River Luo" and "Autumn Thoughts"), the mingling of Chinese and European motifs is unfailingly pleasant, if not much more.