A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Delos records has released two new CDs of contemporary music, broadly defined. The music spans 100 years and dates from the 1920s to 2022. Shapeshifter features the music of the German-Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who lived from 1894 to 1942. Spectrum features a collection of new works by contemporary American (and Californian) composer Mark Abel.

Both Shapeshifter and Spectrum illustrate Delos’ commitment to recording new music even if the music was composed earlier in the 20th century.

Shapeshifter is a joint venture of Delos and the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices at the Colburn School of Music in Los Angeles and features performers from the Colburn School. As stated on their website, the Ziering-Conlon Initiative for Recovered Voices is “a unique Colburn resource that encourages greater awareness and more frequent performances of music by composers whose careers and lives were disrupted — or worse — during the years of the Nazi regime in Europe.” Schulhoff was one of those Jewish composers whose life was cut short by the Nazis. But he still left behind a treasure trove of music.

Erwin Schulhoff’s music as performed on this CD seems refreshingly new, and that’s partly because, with a few exceptions, it has not been recorded much and the few recordings that do exist are not widely available. The Delos CD includes five pieces: Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra Op.43 (conducted by James Conlon), Five Pieces for String Quartet, Suite for Piano Left Hand, Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, and Susi (for solo piano). 

These works, mostly for solo piano and small instrumental ensembles, show that Schulhoff was a masterful composer and, especially with the delightful Susi, his tendency to incorporate jazz influences into his music. Schulhoff also wrote symphonies and other bigger works, some of which one can find on YouTube.

For many people, hearing these works will be a revelation because they get to hear what for them is music from a new composer. The pieces on the Delos CD are a sampler of Schulhoff’s music. They are performed wonderfully by members of the Colburn School, whose playing is as refreshing and exciting as the music. It is clear from the performances that the musicians are enthusiastic about introducing Schulhoff’s music to others.

Spectrum is Mark Abel’s sixth album on Delos. It features a wide spectrum of Abel’s recent works, including his trademark vocal stylings — two song cycles with texts by the composer and an opera excerpt — and three chamber music pieces, one for viola and piano, one for violin, cello and piano, and one for horn, flute and piano. 

Abel has been branching out more recently with chamber music pieces for a variety of instruments. For example, Reconciliation Day, a piece for viola and piano (I’m sure viola players will be happy!), moves from contemplative to cheerful but is always evocative. The piece is played with sensitivity and feeling by pianist Dominic Cheli (who is also the pianist on Shapeshifter) and violist David Samuel. 

The title for another piece, The Long March, with its interesting grouping of horn, flute and piano, refers simply to Abel’s journey writing the piece and the performers’ journey in playing it. This time, pianist Cheli is joined by Jeff Garza on horn and Christy Kim on flute. Abel weaves together melodic lines for the three instruments, indeed taking the listener on a satisfying musical journey. Together these musicians admirably render Abel’s adroit writing for these three instruments. 

On Spectrum, Abel has assembled a group of talented musicians to showcase his music. Though Abel’s music is as contemporary as it gets (composed within the past couple of years), it is still very accessible with melodic and harmonic lines that pack an emotional punch. On Spectrum, as on his other CDs, Abel brings his unique history of rock, jazz and literary influences to his classical compositions, and the result is a refreshingly distinctive approach to contemporary music.

The music on these two CDs, although written approximately 100 years apart, is complementary. Both CDs include writing for small ensembles, and both combine elements of classical and jazz influences. For those listeners interested in hearing music they have never heard before (Schulhoff) or new music (Abel) that is interesting and engaging, we cannot recommend these two CDs enough.

Kudos to Delos for adding Schulhoff’s music to the literature and expanding Abel’s catalog! 

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA