From Navona Records:
Liza Stepanova’s ‘E Pluribus Unum’
Pianist Liza Stepanova’s August 28th release E Pluribus Unum on Navona Records is described on her website as “Born out of the political climate of 2017” and “an artistic response to the immigration policies implemented by the American government at that time.” These issues that began to emerge over three years ago in 2017 are still present today, making this release remarkably timely. Though the specific works may thematically tackle issues of immigration or social inequality, “above all, the music on this album reflects the composers’ roots, celebrates their immense contributions to American musical life, and a confluence of voices, narratives, and ideals.” In this way the album acts as a thoughtful commentary on the hyper partisanship currently occupying our national political landscape – almost an artistic embodiment of the concept when they go low, we go high.
Stepanova’s commitment to highlighting a diversity of influence and her advocacy for new music is evident, as the release features three world premiere recordings including a commissioned piece from emerging composer Badie Khaleghian. In addition to the premiere recordings, the majority of the works were composed within the last 10 years.
A selection from Lera Auerbach’s Scenes from Childhood – An Old Photograph from the Grandparents’ Childhood begins the album. The movement is plaintive, and acts as a fitting prelude. Its melody is gently coaxed into a character of lyrical nostalgia by Stepanova’s phrasing – inviting a sense of intimacy and promise.
Kamran Ince’s Symphony in Blue (titled after a Burhan Dogancay painting, and commissioned by the Istanbul Modern Museum in honor of its showing) follows Auerbach’s work. Ince’s piece requires a careful control of sonic decay, allowing dense blocks of sound to give way to initially muted percussive echoes and eventual bombastic exclamations. Stepanova navigates these shifts with grace – always mindful of the thematic importance of decay even within the work’s busier textures.
This kind of musical sensitivity is also featured in two of the world premiere recordings included on the release, Eun Young Lee’s Mool and Chaya Czernowin’s fardanceCLOSE. Eun Young Lee describes her piece as being associated with water – specifically the use of shifting tone color to reflect the changes of character within the water cycle. Czernowin’s fardanceCLOSE likewise requires a careful control of clarity of line through registral shifts and a gradual escalation of the relentless repeated gesture that ends the work. In both instances, Stepanova has obviously lived with these works long enough to subtly manage these changes of character in a convincing organic manner.
Stepanova’s technique throughout is polished and assured. Her facility at the keyboard realizes the driving rhythm of Reinaldo Moya’s IV La Bestia, and the blistering passages in Anna Clyne’s On Track with surgical precision. Though the technical fireworks are impressive, Stepanova’s articulation truly stands out. The precise articulation and touch heard in the swelling quasi bisbigliando gesture that opens the third movement of Badie Khaleghian’s Táhirih The Pure (both a premiere recording and a commission) is both crisp and fluid, and but one example of the intense attention to musical detail Stepanova brings to each work.
The album closes with Piglia by Pablo Ortiz and Gabriela Lena Frank’s Karnavalito No. 1. Ortiz’s work is written as an homage to the author Ricardo Piglia, and after a wandering introduction it settles into what the composer describes as a “relentless milonga pattern showing the kind of intense passion normally associated with the tango.” For me, the ending was spot on – a slight fading away leading to an upward gesture reminiscent of an incomplete question – and Gabriela Lena Frank’s work serves as a fitting answer and closing work for the album. According to the composer the piece “is inspired by the Andean concept of mestizaje . . . whereby cultures can co-exist without one subjugating another.” The piece provides Stepanova a chance to once again dazzle the listener with virtuosic precision, and the slightly puckish ending provides a sound thematic and musical conclusion to the album.
This album warrants attention on its musicality alone. But, I am also drawn to it for its quiet insistence that music (as is true with most things) is best as a shared experience that makes a space for all. I’ll be seeking out more music by the composers featured on this release, and I look forward to the new music that partnerships with engaging performers like Liza Stepanova will continue to produce.
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Brad Baumgardner is an unapologetic music nerd who listens to Rossini, Reich, and Radiohead with equal joy. As a composer and new music clarinetist, he has a particular soft spot for thoughtfully crafted and well orchestrated contemporary music. He lives in Nashville with his wife and children, none of whom own or wear cowboy boots.