Fanfare Magazine—on Douglas Knehans: Concertos
It’s good to see a full disc of the expressive music of Douglas Knehans offered for consideration here. Various works have been reviewed previously in Fanfare’s august pages, but this appears to be the first review of a single composer disc. There was one, though: Ablaze 00003, which interestingly featured the first version of Soar for cello and piano. The excellent Jiří Hošek is the soloist on both occasions. Unfortunately I have not been able to hear the previous disc, but the performance here, from both soloist and orchestra, is radiant and multicolored. This is music of tremendous imagination. Knehans scores with a masterly hand, his sound paintbrush unerringly hitting the mark. The piece, in the composer’s words, is “rooted in firm centers around E”; he describes his language as “thorny, expressive” and “florid and exhibitionistic.” The chamber original dates from 2005; this orchestration from 2006.
Hošek’s playing in Soar, for all its faultless virtuosity, is marked by its expressive quality. The direct, involving recording emphasizes all of the positives of Hošek’s playing in a highly challenging score for soloist and orchestra alike. The orchestra under Christopher Lyndon Gee offers pinpoint ensemble and the result is offering Knehan’s piece in what seems to be the best available light. There are some gorgeous lyrical moments around the six-seven minute mark, including a miraculous, held-breath passage for solo flute against a low pedal note.
Knehans describes Drift for oboe and strings as an attempt to suspend time. Here, “drama is not a player and things slowly morph and unfold,” in the composer’s own words. Oboist Vladislav Borovka offers splendid playing, and the Brno recording engineers offer an even better recording, present yet not overly forward. This piece is absolutely beautiful. The shadowings of the oboe theme by the orchestra around the six-minute mark (when some sort of movement seems to seek to creep in) are most effective. There is an element of slowly unfolding endless melody to the oboe’s line.
Written as a commemoration of Knehan’s time spent in Tasmania (2000–2008), … Mist, Memory, Shadow … is another slow-moving piece, and very beautiful; the composer refers to it as “a kind of still elegy.” The title refers to three elements the composer links to Tasmania, the final element being that country’s “incredible natural light” There is a lovely sense of space brought alive by impassioned playing from all, particularly the soloist, Dora Bratchkova. In some ways this is reminiscent of the English Pastoral School (think Butterworth); yet the harmonies glow in a different, perhaps more intense, light and rise to more dissonant climaxes. Bratchkova’s violin at times takes on a burnished quality, and not just in its very lowest reaches, taking on some of the intensity of a high cello. This makes for a remarkably expressive performance.
Finally, the concerto for orchestra Cascade (originally for two pianos, and again this alternative version is available elsewhere, this time on Ablaze 00009 and reviewed in Fanfare 35:5, the present version of the score dates from 2010). There is a very arresting beginning, especially when heard in contrast with preceding two pieces. The orchestral writing is magnificent (and beautifully realized here). Inspired by the idea of piano resonance and how these sounds could be interpreted as “clouds of water and the various forms these take in the natural world,” this idea is reflected in the three movement titles of “Drift Echo,” “Waves,” and “Torrent.” The fierce, feisty opening to “Drift Echo” contrasts with playful, skittering woodwind. At times the music seems to nod towards Janáček (the Sinfonietta). The second movement is truly beautiful and includes some lovely bell-like descending figures leading into its climax. There are, perhaps, hints of the Dies irae, which coupled with the bell references seems to imply some sort of reference to Rachmaninoff. The finale is energetic and serious, and again scored with a light, imaginative touch. All credit to the virtuosity of the Brno Philharmonic and the expert ear of their conductor, Mikel Toms, for delivering such a razor-sharp performance. A fascinating disc.
La Folia on Fractured Traces—New Music for Cello
"When is a cello not a cello? Knehans pushes boundaries. For spin the live performer may arrange accompanying electronic sections to create a variably paced performance. Here we have Knehans at the controls in the 2000 Prague premiere. Night chains requires differently tuned electric cello and electronics. Frequently the electronics loop the live performer. The cello gets to live out its electric guitar fantasies. Night canticle uses similar materials as night chains, adding synthesizer and more digital effects for another extroverted romp but at a higher timbre. In the short Pierre-Jean Jouve setting, Une seule femme endormie, the cellist vocalizes pedal tones while accompanying the soprano. The latest work, soar, sans electronics, runs for a quarter-hour. Even so, despite its more traditional appearance, it’s as dynamic as the electronically infused works."
Ralph Lockwood on Cascade for two pianos
"Douglas Knehans has embraced a distinctive "voice," and breaks some fresh ground with CASCADE; for me a kind of Water Music Suite, or Tone Poem, in keeping with the theme of the CD. Flash floods, meandering rills, crashing waves - a veritable Niagara of notes brought to vibrant life in an iridescent reading by the Pridonoffs, who reveal the melodic nuggets underlying the technical torrents. The composer is orchestrating this work, and a CD will be forthcoming next year. Whether it will become the "La Mer" of the two piano repertoire remains to be seen, but it spoke to me, and I enjoyed the music immensely."
The Australian Financial Review on The Ascension of Robert Flau (opera)
"The Ascension of Robert Flau is an hour-long work done in its entirety. Charting a man’s journey into the depths of psychosis and his return to love and sanity, the score is insistent, often violent and confrontational. A piece like this deserves several hearings, but at this stage, I’m impressed with the score."
The Washington Post on Seraphic Ride
“Conductor Sylvia Alimena led nine National Symphony Orchestra players Friday in a splendid world premiere of Douglas Knehans’ “Seraphic Ride.” “Seraphic Ride” is a one-movement essay for “mini-orchestra” joining three trios of woodwinds, percussion (plus piano and harp) and strings. Dedicated to the late Jacob Druckman, Knehans drew on the celestial imagery of that composer’s “Seraphic Games,’ similarly anchoring his work, its direction and structure in the sonic resources of instrumental color. The piece tells an exiting story, ever-intensifying in color, thematic ideas, texture and tempo.”
Fanfare Magazine on Cascade for two pianos
"The second piece, by Australian-American composer and University of Cincinnati professor Douglas Knehans, is a premiere recording. Written specifically for the Pridonoffs, Cascade is a substantial, three-movement work that reflects the composer's preoccupation with how "sounds as waves move about the air as we hear them." Cascade draws on various sonorities offered by the piano while at the same time showcasing the Pridonoffs's impressive technical abilities. It is an effective piece, whose percussive, incisive outer movements (titled "Drift Echo" and "Torrent") bookend a hauntingly beautiful slow movement ("Wave")."
The Australian on Five Poems to Sylvia Plath
“I was particularly impressed with Knehans's setting of the poem called ‘You're.’ His music is brilliantly catchy and eerily bright, providing an extra dimension to Plath's heavily condensed imagery.”
The Straits Times (Singapore) on Seraphic Ride
“...had a gift of pulse and kinetic impetus that propelled [his] music onward...”
The Miami Herald on Night Chains
“‘Night Chains’ by Douglas Knehans, was like a Hitchcock soundtrack gone truly psycho: wildly inventive.”
The Tuscaloosa News on Winter Steps
“‘Winter Steps’ is a witty, ambitious, inventive and passionate work ... a brief and powerful piece...”
The Washington Post on Rive
“While a nicely shaped account of Sculthorpe's ‘Grief Singing’ opened the concert, a sometimes growling, sometimes melancholic rendition of Douglas Knehans's ‘Rive’ beautifully closed it out.”
The Sydney Morning Herald on Bang
“Other highlights included Douglas Knehans's ‘Bang’... Knehans uses electronics and a driving rhythm to explore variations in time and attack. However, there are [sic] a directness of expression and lack of pretension which resonate with his compatriots' music.”
Audiophile Audition on Fractured Traces—New Music for Cello
Amazing blend of cello and other sounds like you've never heard before!
The use and blend of traditional acoustical instruments and electronic sound sources is not new. The earliest pieces in the genre go back to the 1940s and 1950s. However, both electronics as well as the sound worlds that composers and performers have been listening to, "grew up" with and trained in over the past thirty years in particular have become amazingly sophisticated. Such is the case with this example of new music for cello by Douglas Knehans.
While I was not familiar with Knehans, I am familiar with some of the new and amazing works and composers represented on the Ablaze label. Douglas Knehans is a much touted composer, having received recognition from as far as Australia and Poland and throughout the United States. He has most recently been serving as a composition and new music professor at the University of Cincinnati. These pieces indicate that Mr. Knehans is a very gifted experimenter with a very high level of skill in the electronic media as well as very well versed in the possibilities and probabilities of advanced cello playing.
The opening work, "Spin", is an immediate attention getter, filled with absolutely virtuosic cello playing, in this case by the incredible Jiri Hosek, as well as some captivating, atmospheric electronic effects realized by Knehans in live performance. The very detailed booklet notes indicate that the "spin" of the title is a reference both to the other worldly demands on the cellist but on some performance time decisions regarding duration and intensity that allow this work to be culminated in as little as seven minutes or close to twenty. The net effect here, from a live performance in 2000 in Prague, is excellent and very attention-demanding.
Knehans' two works "Night chains" and "Night canticle" have some elements in common, aside from the titles. Both works do rely, quite effectively, on an almost seamless blend of electric cello and digital effects. Both pieces were composed for specialist Jeff Krieger and, according to the composer's notes, "night canticle" is based on some of the pitch elements as are found in the "night chains". Additionally, it is interesting to imagine that the "…canticle", with its somewhat quieter and more relaxed sound, would serve as the middle movement to a projected three-movement work that has yet to be realized. As they are, both pieces provide some very interesting and demanding listening. The interplay between various timbres and motion in the digital electronics is at least as fun to follow as that found between the electronics and the cello. Krieger is a very skilled, energetic player and brings energy to these works.
The remaining two works on the program have less in common with the others and are intriguing individually. "Une seule femme endormie" (a lone woman asleep) is an almost surreal setting of a poem by David Gascoyne involving obsession and love gone wrong. The musical effect is almost a post-Schoenberg sound, like perhaps Berio or Lutoslawski and the vocalizations by the cellist, sparing but unsettling, do provide for a very beautiful, but eerie, experience. The performance by cellist Paul York and modern music specialist Susan Narucki is stunning. This fairly short work contrast quite a bit with Knehans' "Soar" for cello and piano. "Soar" is the most recent work on this program and the composer comments that it stands as an example of his "distance traveled" and how he has "evolved" as a composer. Probably, the most conventional sounding work on the disc this work does 'soar' with long dramatic cello lines, distantly tonal, and ponderous undercurrents in the piano. Performers Wojtowicz and Teniswood-Harvey perform wonderfully, almost rhapsodically. Knehans also comments in the booklet notes that his most recent pieces such as his "Shoah Requiem" for chorus and orchestra or his "Glow" for violin, clarinet and orchestra do reflect a more conservative and intentional connection between the music and the audience.
That certainly does make me curious about Douglas Knehans' other works but, I admit, I rather liked the earlier, abstract, strange but captivating sounds of his electronics enhanced pieces. I recommend this disc for anyone who does like very interesting, very unusual music. The bonus is that if works like the two "night" pieces are just not your thing, then "Soar" cannot help but make you want to find out more about this composer. It did for me.
—Daniel Coombs, Audiophile Audition