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David Rakowski

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There are marvellous ideas in David Rakowski's music. At the end of the slow movement of his Piano Concerto (2006), for instance, the soloist suddenly switches to a toy piano to play a flourish that's at once otherworldly and mischievous. Similarly, the jazzy syncopations and riffs in the movement that follows convey simultaneous feelings of playful spontaneity and lurking menace.
Indeed, there's usually some striking element in Rakowski's work to attract one's attention. In Winged Contraption (1991), it might be how the fast, motoric main section is affected by the aching emotion of the slow introduction, which hovers like one of those dark storm clouds that doggedly follow a cartoon character. In the Elegy that opens Persistent Memory (1997), it might be the way the long phrases open and spread like tendrils of a fast-growing plant.
And, yet, for all Rakowski's inventiveness and clever ideas, there's something missing, though what exactly that something is is difficult to pinpoint. At first I thought it might be a sense of direction or, to be more precise but less grammatical perhaps, a sense of directedness. But that's not really true. That vegetal Elegy grows quite assuredly until it bursts into the intricate and prickly bloom of the variations that follow.
No, I think it's the material itself that lacks character. The big, overarching concepts are imaginative and effectively rendered, and so are a great many of the details and gestures (like that toy piano flourish). But melodically, thematically, motivically -- however you see fit to describe this particular "horizontal" aspect of music -- there's not much to grab on to.
Certainly, the performances here are top-notch. Pianist Marilyn Nonken, who's had a long association with Rakowski's music, plays the tricky solo part of the Concerto with great flair and finesse. And under Gil Rose's direction, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project has developed into a true virtuoso ensemble. -- Andrew Farach-Colton, Gramophone, October, 2009.

The format has long become a genre in itself, an economical standard of sonorities and players almost a century old (in 2012!) and the basis of countless groups and commissions. Its flexibility and variety, however, was already a hallmark of ‘daily music’ in public places, with lobby, salon and theater orchestras. Schoenberg’s ironic Brettllieder were scored for soprano, piccolo, trumpet, snare drum, and piano in 1901, a sound more than familiar to cabaret patrons, and the second version of Rhapsody in Blue was scored for pit band by Ferde Grofe in 1925 with cues in each part, so that a recognizable performance was achievable even without a solo piano. For Boston Musica Viva, entering its fifth decade, this format has never been a limitation, and certainly not a compromise. On Friday, November 20, at the Tsai Performance Center, there was a remarkable variety, with many reference points and abundant cleverness... Mikronomicon, a new David Rakowski work written for Geoffrey Burleson on commission from BMV, takes a left turn into jazzy funky noir. The composer and the pianist have history and a complicated Weltanschauung, and the piece chews up the musical landscape with great humor. The reedy melodeon tones taste a little Argentinian, and the register games are a lot of fun. The second movement of this ‘microconcerto’ was inspired by a dream, a haunting falling major 2nd harmonized and re-harmonized 99 times; I went home and put on Mahler 9. And the Scherzo, ‘dirty and intense,’ a funk delirium; both Rakowski and Burleson bring to bear abundant vocabulary from Piazzola and Prokofiev that flies by with great effect. -- Eric Culver, Boston Musical Intelligencer, November 23, 2009.

This is the third volume in Bridge’s set of David Rakowski’s Études for piano. The present disc, brilliantly performed by Amy Briggs, includes selections from Book V as well as Books VI and VII in their entirety.
An étude (study) can explore many different subjects at once. It can be a technical exercise for the pianist, such as a fingering study, or an exercise for repeating notes, for example. For the composer these studies provide him or her with the challenge of making expressive musical sense out of the technical challenges the pieces present to the performer.
Rakowski, in his Études, has added stylistic exercise to this mix. Theses pieces are written in a dazzling array of compositional and performance styles. The titles (“Stutter Stab”, “Cell Division”, and “Killer B’s”, for example) give a hint of both the technical and stylistic/expressive problems addressed in each piece. The pop-sounding titles indirectly describe the sound of the music, which is “tonal” in the broadest sense of the word, with fugitive key centers banging up against each other.
Amy Briggs plays this difficult music with precision and style. She makes it sound easy, and it certainly isn’t. Her playing is expressive and colorful. I look forward to going back to the earlier discs in the series. -- Steve Hicken, Sequenza 21, January 20, 2010.

As Hyla said beforehand, this program—which also featured the music of David Rakowski and George Crumb–was going to be a night of “challenging music.” Yet with a panorama of three unique compositional voices, this made for a more tantalizing evening than a difficult one. At Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, familiar figureheads of Chicago’s new music scene—George Flynn, Stacy Garrop, Shulamit Ran—helped populate a bustling crowd of loyal followers, young and old...
Hyperblue (1993) by David Rakowski, might be the soundtrack to an Ingmar Bergman film had he ever directed an American film noir. Said to explore the “dark side of jazz,” the work is closer to a neo-romance, with its gut-wrenching episode between violinist Joseph Genualdi and cellist Jacob Braun. -- Bryant Manning, Chicago Classical Review, February 9, 2010.

David Rakowski is closing in on Etude No. 100, though this collection is breathlessly trying to keep up, 20 or so behind. It fills in the gaps in Vol. 5 (each has 10 etudes) from earlier Bridge releases, and then includes Vols. 6 and 7 in their entirety.
Rakowski (born sometime in the 1950s, his Web site is mum) is a self-proclaimed odd duck, though an enormously successful one. I’ve encountered him glancingly, and enjoyed his company. He’s always “on,” and I think I’ve never met anyone with a greater zest for the bad pun (following in Milton Babbitt’s footsteps here). Looking at the titles of many of the etudes on this disc, one sees this habit persists: “Eight Misbehavin’,” “Ménage à droit,” “ A Third in the Hand,” etc.
Now it could be easy to dismiss all this as dorky composer humor, except for the fact that it is quite brilliant. Rakowski, who admits he’s not much of a pianist, has definitely written one of the more substantial bodies of recent work for the instrument. The pieces are imaginative, idiomatic, virtuosic. The composer’s aesthetic is tied to hard-edged modernism, and Charles Wuorinen’s jangly sound seems a progenitor. But Rakowski also has an Ivesian side, in that he can’t help but blend that Uptown perspective with all the “dirty” rock/blues/funk experiences he had in his youth. Thus “Moody’s Blues” (you see the puns just keep coming; author Rick Moody is a friend of the composer, and a co-conspirator in a number of the titles) is a pounding number that suggests what Jerry Lee Lewis might sound like if he’d had Rakowski’s (Ivy league) education. Rakowski sets a lot of technical challenges for himself in these pieces: a left-hand etude (No. 67, “Ain’t Got No Right”); a pseudo-minimalist essay (No. 66, “Less Is”); a piece based entirely on a pedal tone (No. 63, “Killer B’s). All these the composer meets with aplomb. Some really knock me out, such as No. 53, “Cell Division,” which is a sparkling high register rain of arpeggios, delicate in a way many of the set’s pieces are not; and No. 62, “Name that Turn,” an extravagant imitative contrapuntal structure.
Rakowski has said he has a few rules for these works: (1) they have to be through composed; (2) they have a six-day work limit; and (3) they are never revised. As a result, what we’re hearing is a type of diary of his interests, obsessions, and discoveries. Or they can be seen as a stream of “fixed improvisations.” Paradoxical as that sounds, I think it’s in fact a precise description. These are spontaneous “fancies” of the composer, written in white heat, but informed by his innate sense of rigorous form and invention.
Which also suggests a possible problem for the listener. We have 24 etudes here. When taken individually or in small groups (the way they usually are on any concert program), they’re exhilarating. When listened to as a whole, Rakowski’s manic energy can become taxing. My feeling is that this collection is probably of most interest to and use for pianists (who want to learn possible new repertoire), and for composers (who want to steal a thing or two). I, for one, found it very engaging to read Hayes Biggs’s detailed descriptive notes, listening for how the conceit of each piece was technically realized. For other listeners, the disc is well worth your time and attention, but you may want to use it as an introit or an encore (i.e. in small doses) to a larger work.
Amy Briggs has technique to spare and to burn—which is precisely what she does through the whole program. She’s a fabulous pianist, and admirably attuned to Rakowski’s vision. At times, she can be a little too unremittingly steely for my taste, but I frankly think this is what the composer wants, and she’s following his lead. Sound, as usual for Bridge, is superb.--Robert Carl, Fanfare, March/April, 2010.

David Rakowski's music is of more serious intent, albeit not humourless. He has composed many piano Etudes, usually as diversions from bigger projects, and collected them into books of ten, of which there are nine so far. This is demanding music, and Amy Briggs has done a fabulous job of traversing them all: this is Volume 3, containing Books 6 and 7 and some of Book 5. These Etudes cover a range of character and texture, many rather astringent with a bitingly rhythmic profile; Rakowski focuses more on the instrument's percussive qualities than its lyrical ones. It's very well played and recorded, with a superbly informative booklet -- well worth investigating. -- Tim Parry, BBC Music Magazine, April,2010.

Trendy ensembles that play accessible, eclectic new music get most of the attention (and listeners) these days, but you have to admire groups like the New York New Music Ensemble for continuing to champion the more rigorous end of the contemporary repertory. These are musicians for whom sharp-edged themes, complex rhythms and dense harmonies hold no terrors, and they usually make the works they play, however thorny, sound fresh and vital.
The ensemble was in superb form on Monday evening when it played five recent scores at Merkin Concert Hall. And its choice of works hinted that accessibility was not out of the question, as long as the music has something more than ear-catching tonality going for it...
...David Rakowski’s “Phillis Levin Songs” (2008) proved a tougher sell. Ms. Levin’s poetry is often sweet and sometimes childlike, but except for the closing setting, “On Time,” Mr. Rakowski’s angular vocal writing resists giving it the melodic allure it seems to demand. Judith Bettina, the soprano, sang these settings gracefully, but they remained emotionally distant. -- Alann Kozinn, New York Times, April 21, 2010.

In her program notes pianist Marilyn Nonken observes that David Rakowski “asks us, as only a serious composer can, to come and play.” That instinctive urge, be it expressed in science, mathematics, or art, is often thought to underlie our species’ creativity. In music, a composer can transform whimsical, transitory, impulsive, or improvisatory materials into a “serious” work, or he can choose to inject humor via parody, quotation, or even rude noises. I first discovered Rakowski, who’s well known for his sense of fun, through his ongoing series of piano etudes, 88 to date (a very significant number for pianists!). Although his sly wit is usually expressed through purely musical means or in his punning titles, there’s one etude that brings the nose into play as well as the hands. He can be silly but he’s not a provocateur: His music is well written, attractive, and accessible.
When I read that he’d composed a new piano concerto I couldn’t resist hearing it and now that I have, I can say that the style of the piano etudes translates very well into the new format. It’s not just that the essential language is the same; Rakowski quotes specific ideas from his etudes, scattering them through the movements. Although he’s written four other concertos, “all of them with an ironic twist on the idea of concerto … for once I wanted to write a traditional concerto with traditional concerto interactions between individual and orchestra.” The result is occasionally a tour de force, especially in the thrilling, sometimes jazzy Scherzando and the last-movement cadenza. Rakowski frequently consulted with Nonken while writing the piece, at one time suggesting adding a toy piano. She liked the idea but handling two instruments must sometimes have complicated things for her, especially in one particularly memorable passage in which the soloist is required to play rapidly on both keyboards simultaneously. To enhance the sense of continuity among the movements, Rakowski introduces each one with a plucked A from inside the piano. Another unifying device was “to write fast outer movements with slow introductions using the same music.” While far from a traditional 19th-century Romantic concerto with big tunes, the piece opens with lyrically evocative music, setting a mood that’s then partially disrupted by strongly accented chords from the pianist. Rapidly repeated notes introduce a faster section and are also dispersed throughout the concerto, lending the solo part a toccata-like aspect. The orchestral instruments play with great agility, reminding me of part II of Persistent Memory and Winged Contraption (more about them in a moment). The third movement projects a mysterious atmosphere, with solo winds coloring the initially light scoring. When the strings enter they provide a softer cushion for the meandering soloist. Finally, the delicate toy piano closes the movement. Throughout the concerto Nonken plays the motoric passages with a winning combination of fluidity and strength and projects either calm or repressed tension in the slower moments. The orchestral contribution is exceptional, with the winds especially lithe.
Persistent Memory falls into two sections, first a slow-moving, sustained elegy followed by a more active series of variations that at times sound like a concerto for orchestra. Winged Contraption is similar in texture, tempo, and line to the second half of Persistent Memory: The composer’s personal harmonic vocabulary infuses both, with hints of traditional triadic tonality interspersed at the beginning of Winged Contraption. Otherwise the music in the purely orchestral works seems predominantly atonal but not in an overly spiky or aggressive way. Still, I hear some modernist angst. BMOP plays beautifully under Gil Rose’s inspired direction and the recording has great clarity, presence, and timbral fidelity. Nonken’s and Rakowski’s reminiscences lend a welcome personal touch. This is an excellent disc that should be heard by fans of contemporary music and especially those with a yen to add an exciting new piano concerto to their collections. -- Robert Schulslaper, Fanfare, May-June 2010.

Amy Briggs, (a.k.a. Amy Dissanayake) is a pianist who has long specialized in new music, and with this disk she continues to establish herself as one of the most active and acclaimed pianists of her generation. She and composer/collaborator David Rakowski again pair up with selections from Books V-VII of his piano etudes. Whether in the skittish "Stutter Stab," the minimalistic "Less Is," or the lyrical chorale "Rick's Mood," Briggs displays her formidable technical skill to perfection, and her command over the wide array of colors and expressions is impressively exhibited in these pieces. Also noteworthy is her utmost attention to dynamic details and clarity of phrasing. Briggs is particularly successful with those works that are jazzy and demand rhythmic precision and sharp attachks that burst with fire and energy. There is no doubt that this is a CD that should be added to your collection. M.F.L., Clavier Companion, August, 2010.

In addition to these works, the ensemble presented a New England premiere of David Rakowski’s Current Conditions, interweaving of Beethoven’s fifth symphony (of all things) into bawdy ragtime melodies. It’s a fun work – one that integrates the two textures without peering down from an ivory tower. And although the traces, then culmination of Beethoven’s work blended beautifully with the early-twentieth-century themes of the work, somehow, a slower tempo plagued the ragtime, robbing it of its inherent humor. -- Sudeep Agarwala, Boston Musical Intelligencer, March 2, 2011.

It’s not easy to describe the vast beauty of the Grand Canyon in words — let alone with a single cello. But that’s the task the always enterprising Boston-area cellist Rhonda Rider recently set to 11 composers. ... Several works employed river and water imagery. ... Rakowski’s rhapsodic “Luccicare’’ glistened, shimmered, and conjured up the eternal spirit of J.S. Bach, another spectacular natural monument. -- Harlow Robinson, Boston Globe, March 14, 2011.

Luccicare, by David Rakowski, does not refer to a revised national health care system, either for ourselves for some poor devil named Lucci. Rather, and happily, the composer makes use of the poetic Italian verb referring to the play of light. Specifically, Rakowski intends to depict light playing on rivulets as they descend into the Sturm of canyon currents and then return to their glinty sources. Effective in its impressionistic depiction of scintillating swirls and ripples, the piece did not proceed, as we expected, into the full flow of the “torrents” Rakowski cites, before returning to the subtly eddying source. So, no Moldau here. One was not sure if frequent caesuras in this performance, as well as in a number of other pieces, were the result -- Tony Schemmer, Boston Musical Intelligencer, March 14, 2011.

The program also featured the premieres of Arthur Kreiger’s “Sound Merger” for chamber orchestra and electronic sounds, and David
Rakowski’s “Talking Points (Right Wing Echo Chamber)” for strings and cello soloist.
Mr. Rakowski told Mr. Schaefer that he had written the work while on sabbatical, when he read political blogs and began thinking about how political messages are spread by repetition. The work lived up to its title: after a lively introduction it outstayed its welcome like
pundits’ ceaseless chatter. — Vivien Schweitzer, New York Times, June 21, 2011.

Titling pieces is a bit of an art; the right one can provide a nice shorthand description, sort of a program note in miniature. The wrong
one can put a work in an unsympathetic or confusing listening context – especially on first hearing. There were examples of both on the
League of Composers/ISCM Orchestra program, June 18 at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. …
“Talking Points (Right Wing Echo Chamber)” (2010), is another potentially confusing title. One would expect David Rakowski’s concerto for cello and strings to sound edgy or strident. Instead, it focuses on the insinuating aspects of partisan rhetoric, how propaganda gets repeated over and over again until, true or not, it can seem to its supporters like holy writ. Rakowski’s language is rhythmically vivacious, and his “echo chamber” consists of layers of repeated contrapuntal lines and gradually unfolding stacks of piquant harmonies. An elegantly provocative piece and an excellent showcase for Sherry, “Talking Points” was the standout of the evening. — Christian B. Carey, Musical America, June 21, 2011.

The most inspired piece that I heard on the program was David Rakowski’s take on “The Ladies Who Lunch,” (from Sondheim’s Company), which featured a rolling bass line against some very difficult chords that roamed all over the keyboard and a nifty transition to a jazzy sequence that morphed into a Chopinesque riff and touched on some Rhapsody in Blue before ending. Although de Mare struggled with the chords, Rakowski’s music seemed to go somewhere. — James Bash, Oregon Music News, July 16, 2011.

?The most inspired piece I heard on the program, David Rakowski to take "the ladies who lunch" (from Sondheim's Company), which featured a bass line rolling contracts against some very hard to walk through the keyboard and a transition a sequence of easy jazz riff Arabesque Chopin and has a number of Rhapsody in Blue in the end. Although Marc was struggling with the chords of the music seemed to go anywhere Rakowski. — Classical Music News, July 17, 2011, writer uncredited.

Anthony de Mare has made a valuable career out of playing contemporary American music, and his PIPF concert a couple of years ago remains one of my favorites. He’s commissioned some of today’s leading composers to create new versions of songs by an American composer who, by virtue of working in what’s now regarded as a corner (though what used to be the center) of American music, is often overlooked on those lists of greatest living composers. Yet how can anyone ignore the staggering accomplishments of Stephen Sondheim, whose music has dominated American musical theater for the past four decades? …
De Mare’s set kicked off energetically ... highlights included a brilliant “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the ever-adventurous David Rakowski and an epic take on Follies’ beautiful “Losing My Mind” from Pulitzer winner Paul Moravec. — Brett Campbell, Oregon Arts Watch, August 7, 2011.

... David Rakowski’s “Thickly Settled,’’ which was getting its world premiere, proposes to “evoke the once-bustling, back-road settlements of rural Massachusetts.’’ ...
“Thickly Settled,’’ for violin, viola (sic), clarinet, and piano (same lineup as for Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps’’), with BMV music director Richard Pittman conducting, conjured the New England of H.P. Lovecraft rather than Charles Ives. There were pockets of brooding bustle, and William Kirkley’s clarinet kept evoking “The Twilight Zone.’’ The third and last movement didn’t quite live up to its hilarious title: “Pipistrellosamente,’’ or “like a bat.’’ — Jeffrey Gantz, Boston Globe, October 3, 2011.

The first thing that caught our attention as we entered the Tsai Performance Center for the opening concert of Boston Musica Viva’s 43rd season on September 30 was the very diminutive Kawai baby grand piano on the stage. What’s with that? we wondered. Answers appear below. ...
The first half of the program ended with the premiere of David Rakowski’s Thickly Settled for clarinet (William Kirkley), violin (Keyes), cello (Müller-Szeraws) and piano (Geoffrey Burleson), which Pittman informed the audience is the third work BMV has commissioned from Rakowski. The title, derived from those road signs one sees on rural roads to warn of impending hamlets, turns out to have little to nothing to do with the piece. Rakowski’s is one of the rare genial musical personalities (his hilarious riposte to all manner of compositional orthodoxies can be seen here) and this three-movement quartet is something of a devil-may-care romp whose first movement opens in a cloud of dust that gradually settles into a melodic line that drives through a jazzy stretch before a lyrical close. A slow, very self-consciously lyric and beautiful movement follows, in which Rakowski gives the piano a somewhat incongruous accompaniment entirely played directly on the piano’s strings.
“Pianists hate that,” Rakowski said, with a big smile, in his introduction — for which reason, as Burleson told us later, BU sternly refused permission to use Tsai’s regular concert grand. Those party-poopers! The finale, which Rakowski described as a scherzo, sets up a toccata-like driving rhythm against which the violin descants with a slow-moving tune. The movement segues to a slower “trio”; then, just a few seconds after resuming the opening section, it all just stops. La commedia è finita. A charming, well-built piece in a loose-limbed way. The performance, conducted by Pittman, seemed perfectly together. Each player contributed passages of distinguished finesse and the ensemble seemed to be chugging contentedly. Even Burleson smiled. — Vance R. Koven, Boston Musical Intelligencer, October 3, 2011.

Perhaps the most successful liaison of the evening was David Rakowski's gloss on "The Ladies Who Lunch" (from Company). Following Sondheim's structure, the composer transforms the recitative-like opening with Lisztian "three-hand writing." The left hand provides bass, harmony, and melody and the right hand plays bi-tonally chilling, broken octaves in the high register. When tempo arrives, the left hand uses Sondheim's bossa nova rhythms while the right hand plays the tune in octaves. The dissonances and outbursts suggest the woman who is becoming slowly unhinged; and instead of the the song's big, drunken outcry at the end, Rakowski evokes her deep sadness with quietness and a final chord stripped bare. Uel Wade, Squawk-Op Arts, January, 2012.

In a Saturday afternoon recital that was the result of years of planning and commissioning, pianist Anthony de Mare opened his performance by making a verbal case for Stephen Sondheim's standing as a top American composer. That should be a no-brainer for theater lovers, who have long known Sondheim as the reigning king of musicaldom.
But de Mare's proclamation was for the Van Cliburn Foundation crowd—the performance, Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim, was on the Cliburn at the Modern series—who should consider Sondheim up there with Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein.
And then he set out to prove it, playing works inspired by Sondheim songs by such noted composers as William Bolcom, Steve Reich and Jake Heggie.
The reworkings had each composer's style stamped on them. The tunes included Gabriel Kahane's "Being Alive" (from Company), Fred Hersch's "No One Is Alone" (Into the Woods) and, in one of the more interesting versions, David Rakowski's take on "The Ladies Who Lunch" (Company), with bossa nova lines and an evocation of the character, Joanne, who sings that song. Hard to do, considering those lyrics (and Elaine Stritch's original performance) are probably among the best known of any Sondheim tune, except maybe "Send in the Clowns."-- Mark Lowry, Theater Jones, February 7, 2012.

David Rakowski’s Micronomicon, a piano concerto written specifically for BMV’s Geoffrey Burleson, opened Boston Musica Viva’s June 16th concert for the Rockport Chamber Music Festival at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. The first movement began with disconnected gestures from which a jaunty piano theme emerged, reflecting Burleson’s experience with jazz; the harmonies underpinning the theme incorporated a tangy dissonance into their pleasant expansiveness. Throughout the movement, Rakowski’s instrumentation was fluid and engaging, particularly in a passage where the piano and glockenspiel joined in florid passagework over a well-blended high-register ensemble accompaniment that brought out the sparkle — while keeping any piercing tones at bay. There were some moments of seemingly directionless hurly-burly, but the movement was brought to a satisfying conclusion.
The second movement was an atypical slow one built around a descending two-note motif that moves from the piano to the ensemble and back. While Burleson’s great talent was evident throughout all the varied passages in Micronomicon, I was most impressed with the depth and variety of expression he brought to a motif whose extreme simplicity would perhaps allow lesser soloists to lapse into mechanism. The third and final movement was built on an obviously funk-inspired rhythmic motif introduced by the piano. The coordination of the piano and percussion parts in these opening passages was groovy perfection. At the culmination of the movement, Burleson and percussionist Robert Schultz once again collaborated, here in a nostalgic and increasingly virtuosic melodica (a wind instrument with a piano keyboard) duet that for all its ingenuity, did not have much sense of completion. It was left for the ensemble to bring the concerto to a conclusion with a further exploration of the funky material from the beginning. -- Stephanie Lubkowski, Boston Musical Intelligencer, June 18, 2012.

Geoffrey Burleson ... followed this short suite with more Saint-Saëns (whose complete piano music he is recording for the Naxos label) — the expansive “Caprice on Ballet Airs From Gluck’s ‘Alceste’ ” — and a gentle étude by David Rakowski, before closing the concert with three of his own virtuosic, lively, occasionally jazzy improvisations on a handful of Debussy themes. -- Alan Kozinn, New York Times, August 22, 2012.