JAMES GRANT: CHOCOLATESMusic for Viola and Piano
MICHELLE LACOURSE, viola
Martin Amlin, Piano
World Premiere Recordings
"These pieces are designed to work as starters or sweets, and I can imagine viola players gobbling them up, as they offer ample opportunity to dig into a deep dish of melodic plenty. Michelle LaCourse has a lovely, leathery tone. "
Gramophone - January 2010
"These sometimes bittersweet confections have a melancholy, rainy day mood. Sentimental, but never saccharine, LaCourse strikes the right tone throughout, milking the vibrato here, holding back there. Always tasteful and richly satisfying.
All Things Strings - February 2010
"Michelle LaCourse and Martin Amlin prove terrific performers. LaCourse's lovely tone quality enhances Grant's melodies."
Turok's Choice, Issue No.217 - January 2010
"The viola might not be associated with the world of jazz in most people’s minds, a fact that makes this disc all the more refreshing. James Grant, writes music that treads that most difficult of tightropes: it is approachable without being in any way dumbed down... highly talented Michelle LaCourse [gives] these skillful miniatures an astonishingly laid-back, reflective performances... enough to make one reframe one’s image of the viola... [an] appealing offering. The recording itself is exemplary. The disc is great fun all round."
Colin Clarke, Fanfare - January / February 2010
"This album delivers what its cover promises: a box of chocolates. All with different fillings, alike and yet different - just as with real chocolates in an assorted box. Each one is delicious... The dark, velvety voice of the viola is perfect for these songs. No violin, no cello, no clarinet could do it so well. The artistry of Michelle LaCourse is the key here: James Grant is really lucky to have such a sensitive and devoted presenter for his compositions. Honestly, I did not imagine that a viola could be so rich, stylish and versatile. Martin Amlin, on piano, provides excellent foils, resonant and swingy, but still the viola is the main singer in this duo. You know these "'Round Midnight" collections of slow jazz music? I wonder why viola didn't become one of the important jazz instruments, like clarinet or guitar? Maybe it's because not many violists can swing it like Michelle LaCourse? All in all, this is good old-fashioned music, very tonal and often predictable, yet pleasant... The recording quality is excellent. The design of the cover and the booklet has good taste and style. This could be a great present. Even for yourself. Chocolate is the molecule of happiness, you know."
MusicWeb International - February 2010
"It seems more than a little appropriate at this festive time of over indulgence to review an album inspired by that wonderful confectionery invention, chocolate. When, after the holiday season is over, our belts no longer fit we can sit back and spread out in our expanding comfort and re-live each mouth watering delight by playing this CD. With tracks entitled “Bittersweet”, “Triple Mocha Indulgence”, and a two piece movement entitled “Truffles” we can happily finish off the last remnants before setting out on our New Year resolution to lose weight once again. Even the cover seduces the taste buds. Enticing close up shots of various chocolates lure you in. Inside the heading makes the album’s inspiration abundantly clear. “It all began with chocolate” it says. This is a collection of wonderful creations from the pen of renowned American composer James Grant. Luxuriously performed by violist Michelle LaCourse, and pianist Martin Amlin, each track will, like your favourite chocolates, delight, seduce, and ultimately satisfy.
The music of James Grant is described in the notes as “fresh and eclectic, exploring a wide variety of harmonic and formal approaches to everything from solo instrumental pieces to major works for symphony orchestra and chorus.” It goes on to explain that violists “have a true fan in James Grant, whose appreciation for the dark, moody, and rich sounds of the instrument has led him to score an impressive number of pieces for viola.” Who better than Michelle LaCourse to add her own “miraculous blend of intense passion and artistic elegance” to the work? Renowned pianist Martin Amlin, from Boston University , adds his own elegant style to the whole, resulting in a multi-flavoured, performance of rich intensity. It is without doubt one of the most seductive collections I have heard in a long time.
The box of chocolates simile is too good to ignore. Each piece has its own rich flavour, delicate texture, and individual identity. However, unlike the ones you are left with after Christmas after all the most popular have disappeared, each selection is gorgeous in its own right and equally delightful. The album opens with “Chocolates (Torch Songs For Viola And Piano)”. Written in 1998 it comprises three movements, the soothing “Valentine”, “Bittersweet”, and the multi textured “Triple Mocha Indulgence”. These are luxurious, slow jazz torch songs written in the style of the classic, tuneful ballads of American music of the 40s and 50s. The next piece is the passionate “Waltz For Betz” which arrived the following year. It was written as a musical Valentines Day card and its heartfelt beauty produces one of the albums most exquisite moments. Michelle LaCourse’s viola literally caresses this piece which is again beautifully enhanced by Mr. Amlin’s piano. Four pieces dating from 2001 entitled “Stuff”, “High Autumn”, “Just A Thought”, and “Endorphins” follow. It was Michelle LaCourse who requested that these compositions, originally written for tuba, were adapted for viola. The same can be said of the next pairing entitled “Sultry And Eccentric”. “Sultry” appears in the now familiar jazz torch song styling whilst “Eccentric” is everything the title suggests. This wonderful album ends with “Truffles (More Torch Songs For Viola And Piano).” Written in 2000 it is divided into two more delicious chocolate themes, “Dark Chocolate (sinful)”, and “Hazelnut (delectable)”. These sub titles say it all and as you reach for the last remaining favourite in the now depleted box you are sure to press replay and relive this superb piece of indulgence once again. An exquisite work."
Jeff Perkins, BlogCritics - December 2009
"The concept [of this album] is ingenious – Grant has written a body of work which is refreshingly different from the majority of the works out there in the viola repertoire, yet still exploits the same characteristics of the instrument which have made it a favorite of composers for centuries. The deep, woody tone of the instrument sings beautifully in these pieces, which are each more than simply novelties or encores. Grant creates a world in which the viola is completely at home, and thus can shine, yet he does it with a consistent, convincing language and a sure sense of compositional construction... One is nearly reminded of Bolcom’s cabaret songs... Nearly reminded, because while the general thematic concept is the same (taking older forms and setting them in a more modern compositional voice), it seems Grant journeys even farther from his point of departure than did Bolcom. This trio of chocolates, as well as all the other tracks on the CD, vary in length from 4 to 7 minutes; each is a substantial piece, both in terms of compositional architecture and virtuosity on the part of both instruments... this CD is an album of music for viola and piano, not viola solo, or even a viola showcase. These pieces are chamber music in the purest sense; a collaborative effort between two performers to realize music as one unified voice. And I think that is what makes this release so effective – throughout all the pieces, the listener is always aware that LaCourse and Amlin are enjoying making music together. Grant has provided them with great music to make, and they rise to the occasion – but the prevailing theme, the connective thread, is one of friendship. This is a collection of pieces written for friends, and performed by friends, and it comes across in every note."
Patrick Valentino, Classical Voice of New England - October 2009
"American James Grant has established a career as a composer outside the academic establishment, and the freedom that that independence has given him is amply evident in the music on this album, Chocolates. The title piece, in three movements, is subtitled "Torch Songs for Viola and Piano," and that's an adept description of the piece, as well as much of the rest of the CD. This is music with its feet planted firmly in the jazz tradition: sultry, languid, full of passion and deep feeling, but also easygoing and amiable. There's more than a little hint of a smoky cocktail lounge about most of these pieces, but for listeners open to that, there's much fun to be had. It certainly sounds like violist Michelle LaCourse and pianist Martin Amlin, both musicians with impeccable academic credentials, are having fun. There's an easy give and take between them and a nice rhythmic fluidity to the music. In the torch songs and bluesier pieces, LaCourse has an especially relaxed and earthy tone that ideally suits this material. She brings plenty of polish to the more "serious" pieces, but the raw emotion of her playing in the torch song idiom is especially compelling. The sound is clean and open, but at the same time, intimate. For fans of the viola and of jazz, it's hard to imagine it getting much better than this."
All Music Guide - June 2009
PROGRAM NOTESIn 1997, I had the good fortune to be invited to present one of the first performances of James Grant’s new viola concerto, one movement of which was written in a slow jazz “torch song” style. I was especially taken with this part of the piece, and shortly after meeting Jim in person during the rehearsal period, I asked him to write me a set of Torch Songs for viola and piano. After the performance of the concerto, riding in Jim’s car, I insisted that we had to stop somewhere to get something chocolate. Almost anything would do, as long as it was chocolate. He grinned and chuckled, and produced a small bag of luscious, decadent, completely sinful chocolate truffles that had been waiting in the car as a gift. The title of my piece was decided then and there, and a great friendship and musical collaboration had been launched—and toasted, as it were—with chocolate.
Jim is one of those rare contemporary American composers who enjoy a thriving career outside of academia. His music is fresh and eclectic, exploring a wide variety of harmonic and formal approaches to everything from solo instrumental pieces to major works for symphony orchestra and chorus. Violists have a true fan and a friend in James Grant, whose appreciation for the dark, moody, and rich sounds of the instrument has led him to score an impressive number of pieces for viola. These include works of a fanciful nature, and a number of pieces written in a jazzy, “blues-y” style, which I believe is a welcome addition to viola recital repertoire. I love the viola repertoire, but I must admit that it is dominated by big, heavy, and somber works (and, I would guess, the highest percentage of elegies in any instrument’s rep!). What violist doesn’t love the chance to sing high drama through the instrument? But I’ve often sought new ways to lighten the mood of viola recital programs while including only truly worthwhile compositions. Jazzy, fun, quirky, sultry, or eccentric are adjectives not often used to describe viola pieces, but here we have a wonderful collection of just that sort, with pieces long and short, presenting a variety of styles and moods, and opportunities to explore the luscious and chocolate sound of the viola. [MICHELLE LaCOURSE]
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Violist MICHELLE LaCOURSE has appeared as soloist and chamber musician throughout the United States and Europe and in South America, including recent performances in Italy, Spain, and Brazil. Her playing has been described by critics in such terms as “a miraculous blend of intense passion and artistic elegance” and “has a mastery of the instrument like a sixth sense, and with it reveals to us the most profound secrets.” She has performed at numerous festivals such as Aspen, Eastern, Interlochen, Skaneateles, Musicorda, the Heifetz Institute, and the International Festivals of Campos do Jordão, Brazil, and of Positano, Italy. As an orchestral musician, she has performed with the Baltimore Symphony and the Concerto Soloists Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and she was formerly principal violist of the Chamber Orchestra of Grenoble France. She holds degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where she studied with, and was for many years teaching assistant to renowned pedagogue Karen Tuttle. Ms. LaCourse currently teaches viola at Boston University’s School of Music, where she is also Chair of the String Department. She performs on a viola made for her in 2000 by Steven Keller of Keller and Son in Philadelphia.
Pianist MARTIN AMLIN is Chair of the Composition and Theory Department at Boston University and Director of the Young Artists Composition Program at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. His compositions have been performed throughout the world and are published by the Theodore Presser Company. He has appeared as piano soloist with the Boston Pops Orchestra and has been pianist for the M.I.T. Experimental Music Studio, the New England Ragtime Ensemble, and the American Vocal Arts Quintet. Martin Amlin studied in Fontainebleau and Paris with Nadia Boulanger and received his master’s and doctoral degrees as well as the Performer’s Certificate from the Eastman School of Music. He is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. His other recordings as both pianist and composer can be heard on the Albany, Hyperion, Centaur, Crystal, Titanic, Ashmont Music, and Wergo labels.
Over the past three decades, JAMES GRANT has been commissioned by individuals and consortia, choruses, chamber ensembles, and orchestras who have performed his music throughout the world. In 2002, Grant was one of five American composers to win the Aaron Copland Award; and in 2004, he won the Sylvia Goldstein Award, sponsored by Copland House. Grant’s colorful musical language is known by musicians and audiences for its honed craft and immediacy. His ability to compose music appropriate to specific levels of experience has found him working with groups ranging from professional orchestras, choruses, new music ensembles, and ballet companies to community choruses and youth orchestras. His music is regularly programmed at music festivals, symposia, clinics, and on recital programs.[ www.JamesGrantMusic.com ]
JAMES GRANT (b.1954)
CHOCOLATES (Torch Songs for Viola and Piano)
WALTZ FOR BETZ
JUST A THOUGHT
SULTRY AND ECCENTRIC
TRUFFLES (More Torch Songs for Viola and Piano)