O Zomer! is one of the final installments in Another Timbre's Canadian Composer Series, which offers 10 portrait CDs of 8 contemporary Canadian composers along with a 120 booklet (you get it free if you buy 2 or more CDs from the series) that offers essays, art from composer Lance Austin Olsen, photography from Nick Storring, and extended interviews with all the composers involved in the project. Cassandra Miller is featured on two of the 8 CDs, this release as well as Just So for string quartet which is equally as stunning. A celebrated composer (she has twice won the Jules-Léger Prize for New Chamber Music) Miller, who lives in London, is Associate Head of Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. And although she has been active in music for better than two decades, these two CDs mark her first official releases.
The title track O Zomer! (O Summer!) consists of two ever-evolving sections, the first developing off of a short marimba figure which is encapsulate within a sparse call-and-response of cello and horn (I think it's a horn, it's hard to say). The second section bursts from the fading embers of the first with brass, crotales, and bells ringing out jubilantly over the subtle underpinnings of the composition. "Philip the Wanderer" is a wonderful piece Miller wrote for pianist Philip Thomas. He begins with probing low end rumble, giving me the impression of the churning waters beneath a rough sea. As the piece progresses Thomas adds more and more color, coming out of the murk until around the halfway point where he falls silent briefly. He then re-emerges with lavish chord sequences, punctuated with more subtly played arpeggios. Around the nine minute mark, Clemens Markel accompanies Thomas with a trembling whistled melody of such buoyancy that the piece is pulled from the depths, up to the mountaintops. It's unexpected, brief, and absolutely devastating in effect. The remainder of the track brings back a more centered feel, closing with another motive of exceptional playing. "For Mira", written for the violinist Mira Benjamin is a gorgeously interpreted figure, which according to Miller's website is based off a computer transcription of Kurt Cobain's vocals on "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" Benjamin draws out the single line like taffy, adding modulations and asides as she traces the shape. The effect is captivating, akin to watching a sculptor reworking their medium until satisfied with the results.
The final composition is called "Duet for Cello and Orchestra" and is easily one of the finest pieces of music I've heard this year. The 'duet' is between cellist Charles Curtis and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, and sounds to be comprised of two distinct sections. The first finds Curtis stating a swaying sequence of the notes G and D, every four measures punctuated with an animated orchestral flourish that directly contrasts the simple, somber motif of the cello with a flurry of bright, flickering motion. This pattern repeats for the first half of the track, the cello continuing its minimal pitching trudge, as the orchestral embellishments grow more complex. Around the halfway point, the orchestra fractures its pattern and begins a period of sustained interplay, increasing subtly in volume. Gradually, the cello dwindles and in the end drops away. The second half is comprised of a more somber sounding orchestra swaying in the same manner as the cello, its cadence subsumed and transfigured. Curtis takes his solo near the end of the piece, and does an extraordinary job of condensing the sentiment. It feels much shorter than its half-hour plus run time.
A surreal and beautiful album, O Zomer! is definitely one of my favorites this year and has stood up heartily to repeated listening. I can see why Christian Wolff raves about her; Miller's sophisticated compositions are rich and vibrant but never overly so. Just the right amount of touch and the perfect choice of musicians bring these pieces to life in thrilling fashion.
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