I’ve had a particularly memorable “year in music” this year. While I’ve listed a “Prufrock’s Dozen” of CDs, this year-end post isn’t a “best of” list in the usual sense, but rather an opportunity to gather together the “best of” my musical experiences throughout the year. The post is divided into three sections: A “Prufrock’s Dozen” of CDs, Live Performances, and Other Significant Music-Related Activities.
A “Prufrock’s Dozen” of CDs (in alphabetical order). I’ve selected the CDs from purchases I made this year, but they’re not necessarily CDs released in 2014.
Adams, John. The Gospel According to the Other Mary – Los Angeles Philharmonic/Los Angeles Master Chorale/Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon 479 2243)
Adams, John. City Noir and Saxophone Concerto – St. Louis Symphony/Timothy McAllister, alto saxophone/David Robertson, conductor (Nonesuch 541356-2)
Berlioz, Hector. Romeo and Juliet – Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique/ John Eliot Gardiner, conductor (Philips 454454)
In one of our listening months at the Great Composers Appreciation Society (GCAS), we listened to two works based on Romeo and Juliet, one by Hector Berlioz, the other by Sergei Prokofiev. Each is a dazzler in its own right; beyond that, it was fascinating to listen to these two very different musical interpretations side-by-side. (David Nice discusses Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, including an assessment of this recording, here.)
Britten, Benjamin. Complete String Quartets – The Britten Quartet (Brilliant Classics 9168)
Each year, I try to make it a point to add more Britten—and yet more Britten—to my collection of CDs. This year, I chose Britten’s three string quartets. I only wish there were more!
Ives, Charles. Jeremy Denk Plays Ives – Jeremy Denk, piano (Think Denk Media 2567)
I’ve danced around Charles Ives, and particularly the Concord Sonata, for years, without success. A confluence of events has finally pushed me through the aural door: the inimitable Kyle Gann has been musing aloud about Ives and the Concord Sonata while writing his forthcoming book, Essays After a Sonata: Charles Ives’s Concord, and the also inimitable Jeremy Denk has recorded the piece. I’ve still a long way to go, but what a delight it is to travel along the Concord Sonata in the company of Gann and Denk. (And yes, I hope to get to Sonata No. 1 in time as well.)
Nielsen, Carl. Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3 – New York Philharmonic,/Alan Gilbert, conductor (Dacapo 6220623)
Nielsen, Carl. Symphony No. 4 “The Inextinguishable”; Symphony No. 1 – New York Philharmonic,/Alan Gilbert, conductor (Dacapo 220624)
I have only one thing to say: get thee hence and buy these now. Then get the 5th & 6th when that CD comes out. In reviewing the first CD from the Project, Anthony Burton, reviewing the recording of Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3 for BBC Music Magazine, remarked, “this is an immensely promising start to what could well prove a landmark cycle.” I think he’s on to something there, and I’m thrilled I was able to witness the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Nielsen’s 5th & 6th live.
Prokofiev, Sergei. Romeo and Juliet (complete ballet) – London Symphony Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev, conductor (LSO 682) (See my note on the Berlioz selection above.)
This has got to be an “essential” edition of Shostakovich’s extraordinary string quartets. Each CD includes a quartet by a Shostakovich contemporary, as well: Myakovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, and Schnittke. The liner notes which, for once(!) focus on the music, are superb (William Hussey for v. I, Elizabeth Wilson for v. II, David Fanning for v. III, Gerard McBurney for v. IV).
Sibelius, Jean. The Sibelius Edition, Volume 5: Theatre Music (6 CDs) – Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä, Jaakko Kuusisto; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi, Jorma Panula (BIS-CD-1912/14)
There is so much Sibelius to love—every symphony and symphonic poem, for starters. I own versions of them all and play them often. Aside from The Tempest, however, I didn’t know any of Sibelius’s music for theater, and it comes to me as a particular revelation. Start anywhere, and I guarantee you’ll find something you’ll come back to again and again.
Tsontakis, George. The Past, The Passion; Claire De Lune; Concerto for Violin No. 2 – Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra/Douglas Boyd, conductor (Koch International Classics 7592) (I wrote about the Tsontakis CD here.)
Weinberg, Mieczyslaw. Sonata No. 3; Trio, Op. 48; Sonatina, Op. 46; Concertino, Op. 42; Symphony No. 10 – Kremerata Baltica (ECM 001992002)
For anyone with an interest in—or curiosity about—Weinberg’s work, this CD set is a great choice. (Read more about the Weinberg CD set here.)
Live Performances (roughly in chronological order). There are so many concerts I can’t get to that it makes no sense for me to weigh in with a list. And yet . . . among the concerts I attended, these had particular significance for me.
Alfred Schnittke’s World. (Juilliard FOCUS! Festival) It was a real gift for me, in tandem with my “Shostakovich studies,” to have the opportunity to be introduced in depth to the works of “Schnittke and his Circle”—Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli, Arvo Pärt, and Valentin Silvestrov—in live performance, and all for free. Joel Sachs, who masterminds the FOCUS! festivals, qualifies as a national treasure. (Read more about the FOCUS! Festival here.)
Kremerata Baltica. (92 Street Y) My year in music continued with a happy accident: I was in New York City for the FOCUS! Festival and spotted a concert by the Kremerata Baltica, founded by the violinist Gidon Kremer. Kaufmann Concert Hall at the 92d Street Y was packed out and crackling with energy. Many of the concertgoers were Latvian/Eastern European, which gave this concert a wonderfully embracing, familial feel. The concert itself, including pieces by Weinberg, Arvo Pärt, Benjamin Britten, and Dmitri Shostakovich, was a model of intelligent, innovative programming. The music selected wove together a moving musical story that made sense throughout, and while no piece on the program offered startling innovations, neither was the music by any means slight. The Kremerata’s performances were stellar, displaying that precious combination of technical prowess and passion for every piece. (The concert program may be found here.)
David Lang’s collected stories. Lang’s collected stories series at Carnegie Hall was another model of inspired programming. Lang wrote of the series, “collected stories divides the world not by genre or style, but by the various kinds of stories that a piece of music can tell in order to see how the story and the composer work together.” I was able to attend the “hero” installment, featuring Benjamin Bagby, storyteller and medieval harpist, performing segments of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon, and the Harry Partch Institute Ensemble performing The Wayward. (Read more about “hero” here.)
Contemporaneous. It’s been a watershed year for Contemporaneous: barely had the ensemble crossed the threshold from the Hudson Valley into New York City, when it was snapped up for inclusion in the Bang on a Can Marathon. Contemporaneous’s performance at the Marathon netted a fine review—not to mention a fantastic photograph of the ensemble—in the New York Times. Contemporaneous has never failed to deliver focused, highly charged performances of music by composers whose works command attention, and this year has been no exception.
I was unable to get to the Bang on a Can performance of Andrew Norman’s Try, but I’ve watched the video countless times, and it’s always a thrill. Last season’s closing concert, Seeing is Believing, and this season’s inaugural concert, Living Toys, which I did attend, held to the same high standard I’ve come to associate with this phenomenally talented and motivated group of musicians, led by the unstoppable team of Lucy Dhegrae and Amy Garapic (co-executive directors) and David Bloom (the ensemble’s conductor), and Dylan Mattingly (co-artistic directors). I’ve been lucky enough to get to know a number of the members of the ensemble personally, and I’m continually inspired by the passion, commitment, intelligence, fine musicianship, and generous spirit of everyone I’ve had the good luck to meet. The generous spirit of this ensemble is no accident, by the way—it comes from within in every sense of the word. Contemporaneous will celebrate its fifth anniversary this coming March, and there’s a terrific celebration planned, which you can read about (and to which you can contribute) here.
Lucy Dhegrae Recital. (Third Street Settlement School of Music) If you’ve noticed Lucy Dhegrae’s name come up a few times in this year-end review, it’s no accident. She’s a marvel in every sense of the word. Dhegrae is not only a compelling singer, but she also knows how to put together an effective, well-balanced program (not to mention a barnstormer of a festival). The recital program, superb from first note to last, opened with Matthew Schickele’s Since 1500, for four a cappella sopranos (Dhegrae, Clarissa Lyons, Devony Lynn Smith, and Sharon Harms). Shawn Jaeger’s The Cold Pane, about which I’ll have more to say anon, was bracketed by two fine Messiaen pieces sung by Dhegrae, accompanied by pianist Karl Larson. The evening closed with Dhegrae and percussionist extraordinaire Amy Garapic in Roberto Sierra’s Invocaciones.
The occasion of the recital also afforded an opportunity to meet up with one of my GCAS discussion-mates, Curt Barnes, an artist who lives and works in New York City. Here’s what Curt wrote to the GCAS discussion group the day after the recital (with thanks to Curt for permission to include his comments here):
In retrospect Lucy Dhegrae is even more impressive than she was at the event. None of the selections were made to show off her (considerable) abilities per se, no mere virtuoso turns; everything served to make for provocative, poetic, absorbing varieties of music. But her great versatility, I now realize, carried the evening.
Personally the event was a watershed moment: for years I’ve run from dissonant operatic voices as just being too much. Dissonant instrumental music, fine, 19th c. opera, fine, but 20th c. operatic music, i.e. dissonance + vibrato, was a bridge too far. Last night sitting fifteen feet from four totally achieved sopranos singing a dissonant modern piece at full volume was…wonderful! And as each sang in turn the composer (Schickele) no doubt knew their specific voice qualities would add richness to the effect (where voices are always different in a way that, say, clarinets can’t be). And a live voice is something that just can’t be equalled in recording. I intend to get more of THAT, as soon as possible.
Other Memorable Live Performances, by Composer (in alphabetical order). I’m very excited by what I’m hearing from a number of up and coming composers. I was particularly delighted to have a chance to hear substantial works from Samuel Adams, Lembit Beecher, Yotam Haber, and Shawn Jaeger in live performance this year, all of whom are included in this list.
The Death of Klinghoffer (Metropolitan Opera/David Robertson, conductor). Adams has had quite the year, from pockets of protest to thunderous acclaim, the latter for both the Met Opera’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer and the English National Opera’s fully staged version of The Gospel According to the Other Mary. David Nice’s report on ENO’s Gospel from London may be found here. My reflections on Klinghoffer and the Met’s production, as well links to several thoughtful reviews, may be found here.
Drift and Providence (San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson-Thomas, conductor). Drift and Providence evinced an elegant, assured sense of orchestration and structure. The piece, predominantly within the lower sonorities of the orchestra, explored that terrain effectively. The orchestral textures were interesting throughout, with a fine balance that intelligently employed unusual effects without leaning on them unduly for interest. Adams, who was present at the concert, performed live “sound design,” as well. The sound design effects rose so organically out of the orchestral texture that they were more “sensed” than heard. Read more about Drift and Providence here.
We Were All (Contemporaneous). Contemporaneous performed Haber’s elegant sinfonietta at its season opener concert, Living Toys, and Contemporaneous has also recorded the piece for inclusion on Haber’s upcoming debut Naxos CD (which I believe will also include Torus). More about We Were All may be found here.
The Cold Pane (Contemporaneous/David Bloom, conductor, and featuring Lucy Dhegrae). I already knew from Jaeger’s opera Payne Hollow and his song cycle Letters Made with Gold that Jaeger was one to watch, and The Cold Pane has further clinched my view. As in his previous works, Jaeger’s affecting settings of five Wendell Berry poems—and in particular his ability to use the sparest of means to evoke powerful effects—put to mind the Benjamin Britten of Nocturne and Curlew River. More about The Cold Pane may be found under the heading “Music” here.
Nielsen, Carl (New York Philharmonic Nielsen Project)
Nielsen Symphony No. 5 and No. 6 (New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert, conductor). I thought the strangely marvelous and marvelously strange 2-movement Symphony No. 5 was going to be the pinnacle . . . until I heard Symphony No. 6. In both symphonies, along the way, I felt I heard quite a bit of kinship with Shostakovich (particularly in the use of winds in small ensemble and solo roles) and character-filled percussion. I could also hear kinship at points with Ravel and even a bit of Vaughan-Williams-like pastoral bloom. Though perhaps more on a conceptual level, the brilliant passages for snare drum in the Fifth (and oh, what a virtuosic turn from the percussionist here) and the zany wildness of the second movement of the Sixth brought to mind later works, like Schnittke’s Symphony No. 1 and Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. Daniel Felsenfeld, in his lively and useful pre-concert talk, also noted kinship with Ives in the fourth movement of the Sixth. I could definitely hear what he meant. But here’s the thing: while one can make these associations and likely many more, Nielsen’s musical vision in these symphonies is like that of no one else I’ve heard.
Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 (New York Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden, conductor). I didn’t know the conductor, the pairing with a Mozart was bound to misfire, and I’d missed Jurowski conduct Shostakovich’s No. 8 at Carnegie Hall. So I entered ambivalent, but I left ecstatic. To my left was a couple who responded as expected: attentive for Mozart, but flipping through their programs, shifting in their seats, and whispering to one another throughout the Shostakovich. To my right, however, were two young people, not musicians, who said they enjoyed classical music though they didn’t know a lot about it. I believe it was their first-ever Shostakovich (a very challenging start!). They’d seen the offer of $35 seats and thought, “why not?” At the end, they rose to their feet applauding, and I was happy to join them. One of them turned to me and said, with her friend nodding in agreement, “I think that is the most exciting music I can remember hearing.” Amen to that.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Metropolitan Opera/James Conlon, conductor). I don’t think it’s possible to understand Shostakovich’s music fully, and particularly work composed before Stalin’s fist first came down, without familiarity with this opera. So much that marks Shostakovich’s musical thinking, his mordant sense of humor, and his sense of theater, is to be found in this single work. I had some misgivings about the production—and in particular the characterization of Lady Macbeth—but it’s an extraordinary work, and I was in no doubt of my luck at being able to witness a performance of this caliber live.
One Quiet Plunge. The inaugural concert of One Quiet Plunge, intelligently conceived and executed throughout, put on display the compositional talent of several Hudson Valley composers. Special mention goes to founder Joshua Groffman, whose own composition, Pained in the blue seat, pained in the red seat, from texts by Sarah Heady, was, for me, a highlight of the afternoon, and to soprano Lucy Dhegrae and baritone Kelvin Chan for their fine, poised performances of every work the program.
Student Recitals. This year, I attended two Bard student recitals, the graduation recital of violinist Sabrina Tabby and “farewell” recital of pianist and composer Maxwell J McKee. Each was a lovely occasion and offered the opportunity to celebrate their talents and accomplishments in a very personal way.
Other Significant Music-Related Activities
My “Shostakovich studies.” I owe to David Nice, among many other things, his encouragement to study the symphonies of Shostakovich and his many valuable recommendations for reading and listening along the way. To undertake this study meant not only spending a lot of “quality time” with the symphonies, but also introducing myself to and revisiting a wide array of other Shostakovich works, not to mention reading several books about Shostakovich, the historical context within which he lived and worked, and the music he wrote. I had no idea what this would yield when I started out, let alone how far I’d get—and it was certainly no day at the beach at many points. That I haven’t written about all fifteen (I stopped at No. 10) has turned out not to matter: undertaking this project has been the single most valuable commitment of time to music I’ve ever spent. It has affected how I listen to and think about music in a myriad of ways that extend far beyond the symphonies—and beyond Shostakovich’s work as a whole.
Visiting the landscape of Sibelius . . . . and so much more. I’ve written extensively about our trip to Finland, Estonia, and London, so full of memorable moments and occasions it’s impossible to sum up. There is just one moment, though, that I want to recount here: the ever-gracious and generous Anneli, whom we met in Tallinn, called to say she was on her way to an appointment but wanted to deliver something, so could I meet her at a tram stop nearby? Among other things, she presented me with a CD that was only available, as she put it, “from my hand.” The CD was called For Ida, the Most Beloved Songs of Jean Sibelius, and as Anneli handed it to me, she explained and sang a little of one of the songs. I could not have had a more memorable introduction to these songs. Well, all right, I must include one more highlight from the trip: it was a tremendous delight finally to meet David Nice after all our cyber-conversations across the miles.
Great Composers Appreciation Society (GCAS). My grateful thanks go to Brian Long for putting together this online music discussion/study group and for the many generous and insightful contributions he’s made along the way. Within its music-of-the-month format, discussions among members of the group have been enjoyable and wide-ranging—with each member offering his or her own perspectives and experiences with music across the miles. I consider the existence of this group not a small miracle, but a very large one, and I’m thankful to Brian for keeping after me to sign up.
Postscript: While this will be my last post for 2014, I will be online from time to time. I very much look forward to your comments and will definitely reply. Happy holidays!
Credits: Sources for quotations are indicated or, where possible, linked in the text. The photograph at the head of the post may be found here. Images of the CD covers of the Adams, Fujieda, and Weinberg are widely available. The remaining photographs are mine.