An Encounter with the Music of William Kraft

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Although born in Chicago, composer William Kraft is most readily associated with musical life in the Los Angeles basin, where he has long been a fixture. A percussionist, Kraft played in the percussion section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for decades, and from 1981 to 1985 served as the Philharmonic's composer in residence. Kraft's music is particularly well known to percussionists, and his concerto-styled Contextures: Riots Decade '60 (1968) is regarded as a key repertoire item among percussion soloists. Widely recorded from the 1960s, releases of Kraft's music seemed to diminish around the year 2000, but late in the decade witnessed a resurgence of Kraft recordings, among which Albany's An Encounter with William Kraft, released in 2008, is an example.

"Encounters" is the corporate umbrella title of a long series of chamber compositions begun in 1975, and the 12th entry in the series, for harp and percussion, is featured here. It is combined with a brace of widely ranging pieces dating back to 1972: Vintage Renaissance and Beyond (2006) for wind symphony; Concerto a Tre (2005) for violin, piano, and percussion; In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky for violin and piano; solo pieces for piano, guitar and a realization of Kraft's graphic score Kandinsky Variations (1975) for electronic valve instrument and percussion. Kandinsky Variations is the farthest out of the pieces here, and sounds sort of like an elliptical elephant floating around in outer space; it's pretty cool, and utilizes digital electronics to produce sounds that resemble old-fashioned analogue ones. The remaining pieces are more structured than Kandinsky Variations; pianist Gloria Cheng turns in a stellar performance of Translucences (1978), which alternates diaphanous and ethereal gestures with more violent ones, a character that typifies the wind orchestra piece Vintage Renaissance and Beyond, which is a revision of a work Kraft wrote in 1989 for standard orchestra. In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky (1972-1974) features flittering violin figures accompanied by a terse piano accompaniment, and it is impressively realized here by violinist Sharan Leventhal. No one would necessarily think the combination of harp and percussion would "work," but Kraft achieves amazing things with it in Encounters XII (2003). Incantations for Guitar Solo (1990) and Concerto a Tre (2005) seem the weakest works in this extensive program; the first gets off to a great start, but seems to lose its way, whereas the second just doesn't seem to get airborne.

Nevertheless, this encounter with Kraft is an interesting one, and illustrates well some of the places his music has been since the 1970s. This music has continued to evolve and, although Kraft retired from his last full-time position as professor at the University of California Santa Barbara in 2002, he shows no sign of slowing down. On the contrary, both Encounters XII and Vintage Renaissance and Beyond seem to demonstrate that Kraft is turning up the heat underneath his Bunsen burner -- so late in such a long career, that is an impressive feat in itself. Recording quality of this Albany disc is all over the map; it seems stronger in the chamber pieces than in the wind ensemble piece.

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