There are those who consider John Cage to be one of America's most important avant-garde composers, and consequently the recent flurry of celebrations and album releases honoring what would have been his 100th birthday continues. On the other hand, many conservative listeners tend to dismiss his pieces as preposterous gimmickry, rendering the performers little more than Foley artists.
The new album Dreamscapes should appeal to both mind-sets, as it features works by one of today's most eclectic composers, Canadian-born Vivian Fung. Cage fans will love her solo pieces for prepared piano, while traditionalists should find intriguing the concertos for violin and piano.
Born in Edmonton, Alberta of Chinese parentage, Fung has a strong desire to mix East and West in her creations. She has made an extensive study of Asian music, including the Indonesian gamelan orchestra. The musical salmagundi she tosses up should appeal to anyone with an inquiring mind.
The most recent piece on Dreamscapes is the Violin Concerto, completed last year. It includes a cadenza that makes Giuseppe Tartini's finger-twisting "Devil's Trill" Sonata seem like child's play. Afterward, when the orchestra returns (with a vengeance), the music self-destructs in percussive explosions that'll save you dusting your loudspeakers for a week. Violinist Kristin Lee's performance is not only technically brilliant but her sensitive phrasing and pacing endow the music with both an emotional and intellectual appeal.
Fung honors Cage enthusiasts with three miniatures for prepared piano from 2006, known collectively as Glimpses. Requiring such instruments of pianistic torture as metal binders, mini plastic hair clips, popsicle sticks and even a metal bar, the resulting gamelan-like clatter grows more compelling with repeated listening.
The closing piano concerto, called Dreamscapes, along with its plucked and strummed piano strings, features some unusual special effects involving Vietnamese bird whistles, wine glasses and brass players whispering nonsense syllables into their mouthpieces. They make it a Cage-like happening the late composer would have loved. Pianist Conor Hanick's performance here (as in the solo pieces) is laudable for its agility.
Both soloists receive magnificent support from conductor Andrew Cyr and the Brooklyn-based Metropolis Ensemble, whose members not only turn in virtuosic performances, but follow their extracurricular instructions to the letter. Also, the recording engineers get a big gold star for a spectacular sounding disc.
Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his website Classical Lost and Found.