Favorite Albums of 2019

I love end-of-year lists. They condense the significant happenings of the past eleven months into an accessible, easy-to-follow format. They can also celebrate the best of humanity, or remind us of the uncertainty of the times and how far we have to go in achieving a peaceful world. (Though “Baby Yoda” was one of the year’s most Googled terms worldwide, so there is hope for us!) 

In the artistic realm, I especially love reading critics’ picks for the most noteworthy classical music events and audio releases of the past year. The sheer amount of musical achievement and ingenuity is usually staggering, and this year was no exception.

With that said, here are ten of my favorite albums from 2019, along with a handful of honorable mentions. (I much prefer a “favorite” rather than “best of” approach, which acknowledges the inherently subjective nature of this exercise and puts my personal preferences on full display!) If you like what you hear, I encourage you to support the artists and purchase their work instead of just streaming it. In no particular order…

Attacca Quartet – Caroline Shaw: Orange (New Amsterdam Records/Nonesuch Records)

Ever since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, Caroline Shaw has quickly become one of today’s most talked-about young composers, and this past year saw the first album devoted entirely to her music. Featuring five works for string quartet (and one for string duo), this release showcases Shaw’s wondrous composition style, which delights in bright textures, sonorous harmonies, and quirky turns of phrase that occasionally collapse into chaos. Plus, nods to the works of Bach, Ravel, Mozart, Haydn, and even Shaw herself are never far off. The Attacca Quartet‘s dynamic and sensitive performances only increase the impact of this release.

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Brahms via Schoenberg: The Piano Quartet in G minor

Despite his inseparable association as the creator of twelve-tone composition, Arnold Schoenberg held a deep affinity for music of the past. His early pieces, such as Guerre-Lieder and Verklärte Nacht, reflect an extension of the sweeping, late-Romantic idioms of Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler. Even many of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone works keep one foot rooted in an earlier era. His 1923 Suite for Piano, for instance, bases each of its movements after Baroque dance forms, similar to models used by J.S. Bach. Schoenberg’s admiration of his musical forebears can be observed further in his small, but respectable output of arrangements, transcriptions, and adaptations of other composers’ works. The results are remarkably varied, ranging from a grand orchestral transcription of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major to a delightful chamber arrangement of the German Christmas carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”).

Perhaps one of Schoenberg’s best-known arrangements is his orchestral transcription of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, which was created at the request of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, Otto Klemperer. Klemperer had been planning a Brahms cycle for the orchestra’s 1937–38 season and believed that an orchestral version of the quartet would provide an appropriate capstone for the project, with Schoenberg as the ideal candidate to transcribe the work. Klemperer and Schoenberg had known each other in Vienna, and both had just recently moved to Los Angeles in the early 1930s, part of the growing community of artists, writers, and musicians who settled in Southern California after fleeing the threat of Nazi Germany.

Schoenberg was thrilled with Klemperer’s request. The music of Brahms held a special place in his heart, and this specific work was particularly beloved, as Schoenberg had played the quartet many times in his youth as both a violist and cellist. In a 1939 letter to the music critic Alfred Frankenstein, Schoenberg further outlined his intentions for taking up the project: 

“Here [are] a few remarks about the ‘Brahms.’ 

My reasons: 

1. I like this piece. 

2. It is seldom played.

3. It is always very badly played, because, the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.

My intentions:  

1. To remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not go farther than he himself would have gone if he lived today. 

2. To watch carefully all these laws to which Brahms obeyed and not to violate [any of those] which are only known to musicians educated in his environment.”

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Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 3: Programming (Diversity)

This is the third installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

Programming (Diversity):

Ah, the classics… Beethoven, Handel, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Debussy, Brahms. Names that appear on countless concert programs year after year. Names that fill “best of” lists and those cheesy classical compilation albums. Names that pretty much any person would recognize, whether they are familiar with classical music or not. Names that have stood the test of time.

However, as wonderful as these composers and their music are, something is missing. Where are the women composers? Where are the non-white composers? Where are the living composers?

One burgeoning issue that classical organizations are now facing regards the subject of repertoire and programming. Each year, when orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, there is an alarming focus on the same dead, white (mostly European), and male composers. Little space, if any at all, is left for variety—namely new works and/or works by minorities. (This post focuses on the latter area. The first—the issue of new music—will be the subject of the next installment.)

As such, the following question has become more pertinent than ever in this day and age:

How can orchestras better reflect the diversity of our modern world?

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The canon, not the cannon!

The notion of the classical music canon is mostly to blame for this phenomenon. Similar to other forms of art such as painting, literature, and film, the classical canon consists of what are considered to be the “greatest” pieces of music ever written—ones that are time-tested and deemed worthy of being heard over and over again. However, this canon is naturally restricting. Let me explain why.

Now, the classical canon didn’t always exist. Pre-1800s, most concert audiences wanted to hear the newest pieces from the hottest composers. (Haydn’s visit to London is a perfect example of this—people would often flock to concerts that featured his latest symphony.) As the Romantic era got underway, though, concertgoers gradually became less interested in the new and innovative and turned their attention to the works of past “masters”—figures such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart—who, by this point, had all been long dead. Beethoven, whose music had received mixed reception during his lifetime, was particularly lauded and over time, he became the stoic figurehead of Western art music. Furthermore, the concert hall was no longer a place for mere entertainment—the music heard within its walls needed to be serious, contemplative, and morally uplifting.

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