Classical Music has transformed. The doors have been thrown open wide, allowing for a multitude of sounds, voices, performers to be heard, and experiences to explore. And, as Hans Christian Andersen said, "Where words fail, music speaks." In increasingly turbulent times, music is not just a balm for the soul, but a tool for expression against oppression and a vehicle for a message. In a time of "OK, Boomer" vs. millenial disdain, music (while exponentially expanding in scope to a point where genre is becoming meaningless, and to some, a line in the sand) still finds a way to bring people together as a common form of expression, enjoyment, and passion.
In 2019, I began a series on Classiclectic called "Genre Fluid Fridays," in which I actively searched for the best in new classical releases, whether they be newer recordings of traditional classical composers and works, or music of living composers and genre-bending combinations of sounds. Usually, a classical radio announcer simply presents the works, tells a bit of back-story, and lets the music speak. My (pesky) millenial attitude is that classical music radio should not just put the great composers on a pedestal, but also allow room for the composers of "the now." Instead of always riding the warhorses into battle, maybe take a new composer's work for a spin and see how it fares; as Miss Frizzle says, "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"
So, to pull a cue from the traditions of the end-of-the-year playbook, I have presented for you a humble list of a dozen releases from 2019 that stuck with me, in alphabetical order:
(TL;DR - visit the Classiclectic 2019 Year's End Spotify playlist to listen to most of these selections.)
"A pulsation marks time, it infuses its rhythm in it and also evokes the heart." The premise for gathering the works of contemporary composers allows for discovery of works that touch the heart and allow for space to breathe. Celebrated Canadian Violinist Angele Dubeau (along with La Pieta, her long-time all-female string ensemble) curate a selection of post-minimalist music that bubble with the excitement of discovery.
The cello suite has been around for centuries; American cellist Ashley Bathgate (formerly of Bang on a Can All-Stars) collaborated with the living composer collective Sleeping Giant to create a brand new kind of cello suite. The rapid collaborative process between composer and performer, along with the different ideas that came from the six composers, provide the listener with a familiar framework but an enrichingly different kind of aural experience.
Loops, a voice, and a theremin; an unlikely combination to land on a classical music list. But, Carolina Eyck takes her theremin and voice to great concert halls, in performance with symphonies and ensembles across the world (also putting on theremin workshops). A haunting sound permeates the album, with vocal sounds pairing with the otherworldly sound of the theremin.
Thinking of an album as a garden, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York composer Caroline Shaw (also a member of vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth) built a world for her and Attacca Quartet to manage. The fruit of their labors provide an honest and beautiful world that calls to mind the great music of past composers, while also plowing new ground for the world of classical to come.
A live album from 2014 released in 2019 provides listeners with the ethereal combination of sounds from Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble. A marriage of early music, vocal ensemble, contemporary sounds and large acoustic space (along with the always spellbinding sound of Garbarek's soprano saxophone), Remember me, my dear is a memory of the past colliding with the unknown of the future.
Genres be damned with the collossal record of The Order of Nature; solo artist Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) joins forces with seasoned composer/conductor/music director Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra. New songs from James (in orchestrations by Abrams), works from James' solo projects, and works by Bernstein and Nina Simone round out a work of positivity and hope that synthesizes rock and classical sensibilities into an immensely cathartic experience.
The Women of Haiti are Haitian-American composer, flutist, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim's focus in Fanm d'Ayiti. Alongside Spektral Quartet, Joachim's debut solo album mixes classical, electronic, hip-hop, and R&B elements, and explores her Haitian heritage. The works also include female voices from yesterday and today (including Joachim's grandmother), which aim to use those voices to connect with other Haitian women's voices. This album takes many sources of composition to help tell a bigger story about Haitian culture and a hopeful future.
The Neave Trio set out to showcase three overlooked pieces by composers who happen to be women. Her Voice is a recording of piano trios by Amy Beach, Rebecca Clarke and Louise Farrenc, which captures the music of French and British early 20th century romantic idioms. The Neave Trio offers pleasant chamber music, obscured by time, and polishes them in a modern recording to make them brighter than ever.
Classic works by J.S. Bach and Johannes Ockeghem; chopped, screwed, and slowed down. New Yorker Pauline Kim Harris (along with collaborator Spencer Topel) take familiar works and create massive universes within the structures. The reimagined results offer touchstones to the original work while allowing for space, chance, and a musical bath for the subconscious.
A collaborative opportunity usually leads to unexpected joy and beauty. Fields is the product of a soundtrack project for the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago company, in which Third Coast Percussion performs music of multi-talented musician Devonté Hynes (aka pop singer/producer Blood Orange). In this debut album of Hynes as a classical composer, the rhythmic and moody music blends organic percussive sounds with synthetic DAW production.
There were many recordings in 2019 of large choral ensembles, but the music of Gerald Finzi's was especially transformative. The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge (led by Stephen Layton) takes a variety of Finzi's partsongs and anthems for the Three Choirs Festival, along with the epic setting of the Magnificat. This album allows for a sublime look into a short-lived composer's works, and opens the door to learn more about Finzi.
Faith can provide a balm for the troubled, but unfortunately it can also fracture both family and the self. Growing up in a conservative Christian household in North Carolina and ending up an "agnostic buddhist" in New York, composer William Brittelle examines American culture's fascination with nostalgia and spirituality. This massive electro-acoustic album combines the efforts of Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, Metropolis Ensemble, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus. With this collaboration between Nonesuch Records and New Amsterdam, walls of genre are broken down as sounds morph and blend throughout Spiritual America.
Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, Happy Listening, and Happy Exploration.
Visit the Classiclectic 2019 Year's End Spotify playlist to listen to these selections.
(All but the Trinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton - Finzi: Choral Works album are available for streaming on Spotify.)