Saturday, May 02, 2020

Of Note In 2020: Classical

Not to undersell it, but this has been one crazy year. I don't need to explain it either, because everyone is going through it simultaneously. I would like to clear the air a little about the status of AnEarful, however, as posts have been few and far between in 2020. This is due to a variety of factors, none of which have anything to do with the lack of engagement in all the wonderful music that's come out so far this year. Since I do much of my writing on the train to and from work (not to mention while traveling to concerts!) shifting to working from home each day has had an impact on my productivity.

There's also the fact that my full-time job is working in the Office of Development at the Mount Sinai Health System, which for the last many weeks has been solely focused on confronting the impact of the pandemic. This has meant longer hours - occasionally spilling over into the weekends - and intense days as we power through to write the documents our fundraisers need to meet the demand created by being at the epicenter of the epicenter. One result of this is that after a long day of all COVID all the time, often the last thing I want to do is sit in front of the computer some more and write about music. Sometimes I just need to zone out in front of the TV.

Then there was the looming project of my best of the decade list. While I knew I would never finish that in December, I had planned to get it done in January and the longer it hung out there, the more I felt I had to finish it before approaching new releases. As you likely already know, I GOT IT DONE, people! And I'm mightily satisfied with it, too.

Now is the time to move on and be firmly present in THIS decade, which has already produced an enormous amount of great music. As usual, my cup runneth over. To keep track, I'm maintaining my usual Spotify playlists, which gather the music I consider "of note," starting with a general one and then broken down by genre. I also have another secret playlist I've been building of the 40 records that have been continual companions since they came out, bearing repeat listens and revealing more glories each time. Starting now and over the next days and weeks I will be sharing what has risen to the top in each genre while also encouraging you to explore the full "of note" playlists. Here goes!

The Of Note In 2020 (Classical) playlist is now clocking over 30 albums. Eleven of my favorites are listed below. Subscribe now to the 40 For 2020 playlist for tracks from all these albums and to see what I add from other genres as I write about them in the coming weeks.

Ekmeles - A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer I think this was the first new album I received in 2020 and one listen in I knew we were going to be fine, musically speaking. I was aware of this ridiculously talented and adventurous vocal ensemble for a while but hearing their work on Zosah di Castri's insanely great Tachitipo (2019) brought them into sharp focus. This album should do the same for many more people. Even before I heard it I was psyched as not only did they record a new work by Christopher Trapani, but they have more from Taylor Brook's deeply eccentric response to David Ohle's deeply eccentric sci-fi novel Motorman, last heard in a stunning performance of Four Weather Reports by the Tak Ensemble on Ecstatic Music (2016). Just as there, we have the extraordinarily expressive voice of Charlotte Mundy to set the tone, and she somehow makes everything approachable. You won't soon grow tired of Brook's intricate scoring, which offers new crevices to explore each time. 

Trapani's piece, End Words, combines the six voices with electronics in seamless fashion to limn the words of three poets, Anis Mojgani, Clara Shuttleworth, and John Ashbery, all of whom employ sestina form. The harmonies are often close, giving it a jazzy spin slightly reminiscent of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. But this is no pastiche - merely Trapani serving notice of his preeminence as one of the most original composers of today. His intellectual questing is always grounded in deep humanism and not a little wit, all these factors combining marvelously here as they they did in Waterlines. Between Brook and Trapani is Erin Gee's wordless Three Scenes From Sleep, which uses extended techniques to explore with great creativity the murmurings of the unconscious mind in various stages of sleep. Ekmeles, under the sure direction of Jeffrey Gavett, toss it off with both precision and freedom, as they do on every track of this explosive debut album. 

Y Music - Ecstatic Science Putting a Missy Mazzoli piece on your album will always get my attention, and her title track (2016) has many of her trademark harmonic ambiguities and shifting dynamics. It's one of the more shaded pieces on the collection, which has an overall feeling of good cheer. The centerpiece is Caroline Shaw's three-part Draft Of A High Rise, a nearly pastoral soundscape that makes fine use of the warm tonalities to which these players seem drawn. Also featured are works by Gabriella Smith and Paul Wiancko, with the latter's Thous&ths (2015) boasting some exceptional trumpet scoring - and superb playing by CJ Camerieri.

Tak Ensemble - Scott L. Miller: Ghost Layers I always like to be in the know so I was racking my brain in the hopes that this isn't my first exposure to Miller. Now I just have to accept that I was behind the curve on this brilliant composer's work. How did I miss Raba from 2018?? Anyhoo, I'm here now and I couldn't wish for finer companions than the TAK Ensemble, who bring their usual commitment, technique, and passion to these seven mostly electro-acoustic chamber pieces. Eidolon may be my favorite, with its drones, sparkles, and theatrical creaks and clicks, but each one contains wonders. Let's all work together to make Miller a household name. Also, subscribe NOW to Tak's podcast - it's the bomb.

Quarterly - Pomegranate The duo of Kristen Drymala (cello) and Christopher DiPietro (guitar, hammered lap steel) have also been under my radar, with their first album coming out in 2016, but I'm glad to know them now as this EP is simply lovely. They combine folk and classical traditions in a way that Penguin Cafe Orchestra fans would recognize, but without that group's occasional over-reliance on puckishness and repetition. That's a long way of saying you will be absorbed and transported by their gentle and melodic string-weaving and, like me, will look forward to exploring their earlier albums.

Barbora Kolářová - Imp In Impulse With a name like "Pascal Le Boeuf" it seems you would have to write a piece called Imp In Impulse, which receives its premiere recording here in a spectacular performance by violinist Kolářová. She's played everywhere with everyone but this is her solo debut and it should firmly put her on the map as an artist with as much personality as skill. Le Boeuf's piece, which was written for her, is not only impish but also at times approaches the gravity of Medieval plainchant to sublime effect. Other violinists should be flooding his inbox with commissions based on this recording. They can try to top Kolářová if they dare. Jean Françaix's Theme with 8 Variations for Solo Violin (1980) also has impish moments, especially when he goes for the pizzicato, but there are also shades of folk fiddle and knotty moments for a remarkable range of moods throughout. It's apparently rarely performed but the sheer delight Kolářová displays should change that. The album closes with Klement Slavický's Partita for Solo Violin, which takes Bach's model and updates it a bit, but not so much that the great man would find it unrecognizable. All those places and players used to working with Kolářová may find her datebook a little fuller than usual with solo performances once normal concert life resumes!

Richard Valitutto - Nocturnes & Lullabies Over the course of this album's eight premieres, Valitutto creates an almost entirely new landscape of piano music and sound. Mind you, the piano is unprepared and no electronics are involved - it's just the killer use of dynamics and attack along with pedal deployment of nearly unreal expertise. Notably, Valitutto also co-produced the record (with Nick Tipp) - clearly a man who knows what he wants! The pieces range from Rebecca Saunders' drama-laced Shadow (2013) and Wolfgang von Schweinitz's blocky but mellow Plainsound Lullaby (2014) to Linda Catlin Smiths chiming A Nocturne (1995), for a truly fascinating journey. 

Cenk Urgün - Sonare & Celare If Valitutto was waxing nocturnal, the first of these two single-movement string quartets by Urgün go him one further into dark night of the soul territory. Performed with frightening dedication by the JACK Quartet, who never seem to put a horsehair wrong, Sonare is a mostly ultra-rhythmic, skirling stringscape that may raise the hairs on the back of your neck. In his notes, Urgün somewhat clinically describes "building near-static sound fields made up of repeated patterns, sustained tones, and what can be called islands of sound: brief sound events surrounded by silence." Clearly he wants you to find your own way emotionally, but the power of Sonare is very real. Celare is calmer, even lyrical at times, but remains spartan enough that you never get too comfortable. Whether your introduction to Urgün's methods and sound world, or just another chapter in the JACK's ongoing pursuit of excellence, this is not a record you will easily forget.

The String Orchestra Of Brooklyn - Afterimage Christopher Cerrone's High Windows (2013) opens this debut from the SOB in glorious fashion, doing justice to the stained glass that inspired the piece. Also cleverly sampling a Paganini caprice, High Windows is further proof of Cerrone's multifarious talents, even if it's not  as momentous as what he presented on last year's The Pieces That Fall To Earth. Led by Eli Spindel, the SOB and guests the Argus Quartet play with wonderful delicacy, finding cohesion in the spare textures. Jacob Cooper's Stabat Mater Dolorosa (2009) includes Melissa Hughes (soprano) and Kate Maroney (mezzo-soprano) and is almost ambient as it traverses - for nearly 30 minutes - a "time-stretched" variation of Pergolesi’s first movement for his Stabat Mater (1736). Including bits of Paganini and Pergolesi to end the album makes sense only for a scholar, but that's a minor quibble.

Clarice Jensen - The Experience Of Repetition As Death If you want to keep Jacob Cooper's mood going, skip the old stuff on Afterimage and play this gorgeously meditative album. Jensen, the Artistic & Executive Director of ACME, further comes into her own as  creator of exquisite music for cello and electronics, looping and layering her instrument to come up with a string orchestra of her own. As the title hints, Jensen has some dark thoughts on her mind and any of these five pieces would not be out of place soundtracking images of peril and suspense. Find your story within.

Luis Ianes - Instrucciones De Uso Paying homage to the late Georges Perec and his monumental novel, La vie mode d’emploi (Life, A User's Manual), is not something that happens often enough, so kudos to Ianes for injecting him into the conversation. Beyond all that, Ianes is a marvelous guitarist on either acoustic or electric instruments, conjuring all kinds of woody plucks and strums and shimmering chords for a quirky, engaging listen.

Ted Hearne & Saul Willams - Place This big, bold, bombshell of an album builds on seeds Hearne and Williams planted on last year's remarkable Hazy Heart Pump, driving further into an intersection of chamber music, electronic, R&B, spoken word, jazz, hip hop, and progressive rock, only to arrive in a uniquely addictive spot. There are powerful ideas here, too, thoughts about gentrification, family, masculinity, social justice, and more, but they never outweigh the music. The collage-like blend of sounds and voices comes together through the blazing artistry of the singers and players, caught here in an incandescent performance that is at least partially live (the booklet is short on details). I could as easily write a haiku or a book about this rara avis of a record. It truly must be heard to be believed. 

You may also enjoy:
2019 First Quarter Report: The Albums
Record Roundup: One Day In 2018
How To Survive 2017

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