In 2016, Berlin and Paris released new Beethoven sets, but if you want classical music that hasn’t been recorded 100 times, you really ought to give Iowa a try. So when Charity Nebbe invited me to share favorite releases of 2016, I focused entirely on our state. As I mentioned to her, Iowa orchestras play awesome Beethoven (you can hear them on IPR's Symphonies of Iowa ), but in studio albums, Iowa musicians tend to explore less-traveled byways. The results in 2016 were breathtakingly diverse and accomplished. Click on the arrow to hear my chat with Charity; below it, I'll list the albums we talked about, with links. (AND: Iowa artists: if you know of 2016 releases I missed, please tell me, and I’ll update this entry!)
There's an overarching theme to the list, as Charity and I discussed - that our musicians cultivate just about anything other than the common garden-variety genres. But I also organized the results into sub-themes, which I'll set below in boldface:
THEME ONE: CHAMBER ENSEMBLES OTHER THAN THE STRING QUARTET
Chamber music has been centered on the string quartet since Haydn, and right now the world has more great "resident" string quartets than ever before. But what about other chamber ensemble types? They often come together ad hoc for festivals or concerts - but Iowa offered releases from two established, ongoing ensembles:
The Amara Piano Quartet: American Piano Quartets (Fleur de Son FDS580) The world's acknowledged champion among resident piano quartets has been in Iowa for decades, the Ames Piano Quartet. It's still at Iowa State, but has a new name, the Amara Piano Quartet, and two new members (Borivoj Martinic-Jercic and Mei-Hsuan Huang) joining two original APQ members (Jonathan Sturm and George Work). Their 2016 album shows them to be as exceptional as ever. It explores (mostly) recent American masterpieces. Dark Rosaleen was written for the APQ by Lee Hoiby, best known for his vocal works. It's based on James Joyce - not his words, but a tune he wrote for an earlier Irish poem. Carolina Variations by Paul Schoenfield is based on “Carolina in the Morning"; and the Piano Quartet no. 3, "Corragio," by George Tsonstakis was recorded during his residency at Ames with the group. Walter Piston fills the disc out.
Trio 826 : Mosaic (Blue Griffin 403) Writing for string trio challenges composers because they aren't given quite enough players. While a quartet automatically allows a chord plus a melody, a trio makes you do everything with just three instruments. The challenge has inspired some real gems, as Trio 826 shows on this first album, with a range of pieces from Austria (Franz Schubert), the Czech Republic (Hans Krasa), Germany (JS Bach and Richard Strauss), Hungary (Zoltan Kodaly), Romania (Georges Enescu), Russia (Alexander Borodin), AND two new pieces from Iowa, by Rebecca Burkhardt and Robert Washut. Because each instrument has extra work to do, playing string trios is also challenging - but not, apparently, for Trio 826. And its playing is more than the sum of the highly accomplished parts. There's a communicative joy that reflects the group's origin: the players are old friends, which is why they decided to form a regular ensemble. The violist, Julia Bullard, is Professor and Associate Director of Graduate Studies at University of Northern Iowa ; the cellist, Hannah Holman, is cellist in the New York City Ballet Orchestra when she's not in Iowa being principal cellist of the Quad City Symphony; and their friend, violinist Susanna Klein, works in Virginia, 826 miles away (thus the group's name). The glorious cover art is by Lenore Vardi - herself an accomplished Iowa-resident musician, whose late husband, the legendary Emmauel Vardi, was Bullard's teacher.
THEME TWO: SINCE IOWA IS A WORLD CAPITAL OF BAND MUSIC, IT'S NO SURPRISE THAT WE EXCEL IN THE CLASSICAL SAXOPHONE. The saxophone gets too little respect in the classical world, probably because it's so prominently associated with bands and with jazz. But two Iowa releases proved that it can sing so beautifully that classical devotees should check out both originals and transcriptions using it:
Kenneth Tse and the Mi-Bemol Ensemble (Crystal 781) A Professor of Saxophone at the University of Iowa, Tse is known internationally as one of the finest in the field. He works with ensembles around the world, and Japan's Mi-Bemol Saxophone Ensemble is one of the best. When they brought in Tse, they made a recording, and it's unsurprisingly outstanding.
Dave Camwell, saxophone, Mike Eckerty, Oboe, and Christy Eckerty, piano: Mendelssohn Piano Trios (Teal Creak) Felix Mendelssohn wrote his piano trios before Adolphe Sax invented the instrument that bears his name. Mendelssohn probably never heard a sax played, so would he have approved of one of his string parts being transcribed for one? I was secretly skeptical, but Dave Camwell and Mike Eckerty convinced me totally. They sustain and shape the lines so musically, phrase them so naturally and songfully, and tune their instruments together so truly and beautifully that they let me hear details and connections I’d never noticed before (and I've heard this music a lot in the original form). Felix, I'd like to imagine, would have loved it as much as I did.
THEME: THE WORLD CAPITAL OF THE RUSSIAN GUITAR IS.... IOWA! (WHERE ELSE?)
That's because of Oleg Timofeyev, who was by any objective measure the most productive recording artist of the year. Born in Moscow, Timofeyev revived the Russian seven-string guitar from modern neglect and rediscovered vast amounts of repertoire. Thanks to our universities, he is a long-time resident of Iowa City, where he has created an International Russian Guitar Festival that is unique in the world. In 2016, Oleg released fully 10 CDs as part of four separate releases on international labels; they cover Russian, Roma (Gypsy), and Elizabethan music, and the international reviews are stellar. They include:
The Russian Guitar Quartet: A Tribute to the Mighty Handful (Delos DE 3518) – Oleg formed the Russian Guitar Quartet in 2006 to explore a lost Russian repertory of music for FOUR guitars. Its members include Oleg, Dan Caraway from Dubuque, Alexei Stepanov (from Moscow, Russia) and Vladimir Sumin (from Kazakhstan).
Oleg Timofeyev: The Russian Guitar 1800-1850 (seven CDs, Brilliant Classics 95405) This anthology collects some of Oleg's work over the years in uncovering forgotten repertory, some unpublished and turned up by him in archives. The textures are more varied than you might expect: Oleg is joined in some numbers by guitarists Dan Caraway and John Schneiderman, fortepianist Kenneth Slowik, soprano Anne Harley soprano, and violinist Etienne Abelin. A reissue of earlier discs, it is the digital deal of the year: you can download the entire set for less than $9 at Amazon, Arkiv, and other outlets. Zingaresca Duo: Oleg Timofeyev and Vadim Karpakov (this one properly is a 2017 release for me, as I haven't been able to get my hands on it yet; but Vadim was the lead musician in Moscow's Roma theater, and his compositions are still prominent there. Stay tuned!)
Oleg Timofeyev, lute: Elizabethan Pavans (Brilliant Classics 95236) - Oleg started out as a lutenist, and here he gives a historical overview of a profound genre from the Elizabethan era. A recital of pavans on the lute could have been lackluster, but in Oleg's hands it is beautifully varied, deep, and enchanting.
THEME: IOWANS EXPLORING PERIOD INSTRUMENTS
As Charity pointed out in our interview, Oleg can be thought of as part the period-instrument movement. (I was so busy observing his eclecticism that I failed to notice!) Two other CDs by Iowans explored other period instrument possibilities:
Susana Ogata, violin, and Ian Watson, fortepiano: Beethoven Violin Sonatas, vol. 2, with Sonatas no. 5, "The Spring," and no. 1o in G, Op. 96 (Coro 16143) Now active in Boston, Ogata grew up in Des Moines and came back for a talk this summer. If you've been put off by period violin, with its gut strings, or by period pianos with their wooden frames, leather hammers, and lower-tension straight-strung strings this beautiful disc might be the one that converts you. Susana makes her violin sing as lyrically as you could wish, and the artists have a flowing accord. These are my two favorite Beethoven violin sonatas, making the disc that much more welcome.
Galanterie (Jeffrey Cohan, flute; John Schneiderman, lute; William Skeen, cello): An Evening with Wilhelmine (Hanssler HC 15048) - Jeffrey Cohan, a master of both the modern and the period flute, comes home every year to Eastern Iowa to oversee the Black Hawk Music Festival. This year he released a beautiful new CD of previously unrecorded music that is on Suzanne Bona’s best of 2016 list. Unfortunately, it got lost in the snow and hasn’t yet reached me in Cedar Falls, but here's Suzanne's take: "A lovely chamber music collection of interesting repertory by Adam Falckenhagen, who worked for Princess Wilhemine (sister of King Frederick the Great of Prussia). Light and pretty, this is less well-known music that deserves to be heard." Here's a sample:
THEME: IOWA IS A GREAT STATE FOR SINGING - AND FOR HEARING SOMETHING NEW Iowa's choral scene is of international caliber (several CDs are coming out in 2017) and our opera programs are known nationally, so it's not surprising that our state has produced great singers and teachers. Two releases from 2016 highlighted them in repertory that's overlooked or brand-new:
Rachel Joselson, soprano, with pianist Rene Lecuona, violinist Scott Conklin, and cellist Hannah Holman: Songs of the Holocaust (Albany 1627) - Almost all of the composers featured were murdered in Nazi camps. (The exception, Norbert Glanzburg, survived by hiding in France, where he wrote songs for Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier - but also wrote a beautiful memorial to Holocaust victims, which brings the CD to a close.) Joselson's singing is humane, natural, beautiful, and heartfelt; the lullabies by Ilsa Weber, a mother and noted author of children's books, move you to tears. Pianist Rene Lecuona is, as usual, a first-rate collaborator; so are Holman and Conklin.
Kathryn Goeldner, mezzo-soprano, Amy Morris, flute, and Michael Heaston, piano: The Prairie Song Project (self-published at the link) - Goeldner, born and raised in Sigourney, unlocked her vocal gift at the University of Iowa, and has gone on to a major international career including lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera, Salzburg Festival and many other houses. She has also created important new roles and premiered major new works - including the commissions she created for this Prairie Song Project, which is focused on authors or composers from the Midwest. With her fellow Iowa native Amy Morris on the flute, it's a benefit to Iowa in itself. Below is a piece, Paradox, in which words by Shakespeare and Willa Cather are set to music by Peter Ash, a DeWitt, Iowa native who now is the conductor of the London Schools Symphony Orchestra and composer of an opera based on Willy Wonka, The Golden Ticket, which has been a major international success.
THEME: IOWA HAS THE BEAT, UNIQUELY
Percussion instruments are, again, outsiders in the classical world, making it perfect for Iowa:
duoJalal : Shadow & Light: The Rumi Experience (Bridge 9469)
Australia-born violist Kathryn Lockwood of the Lark Quartet, and percussionist Yousef Sharonick are a married couple with a unique musical partnership. He's a Cedar Rapids native whose grandfather arrived from Lebanon a full decade before my paternal ancestors passed through Ellis Island. After graduating from Jefferson High in Cedar Rapids (where his older brother was state accordion champion in high school), Yousef earned his Bachelor's degree at University of Iowa and his Master's at Yale. He has since worked closely with Philip Glass, Yo-Yo Ma, Glen Velez, Paul Winter, Branford Marsalis and many more. This new CD features new works or transcriptions of works of pure music inspired by the 13th-century Sufi mystical poet Jalal Rumi, by such notable composers as Giovanni Sollima and Evan Ziporyn; their nationalities span the globe from Indonesia to Japan to Mongolia to Italy to the Americas.
Heartland Marimba Festival: Heartland Marimba Dances There is ONLY ONE professional quartet in North America devoted totally to classical marimba repertory - and you could have guessed which state it’s in. Matthew Coley (formerly on the Iowa State faculty, now freelancing), and three colleagues will be performing many concerts around Iowa in the next year.
THEME: IOWA PIANISTS EXPLORING
Iowa is a great state for the piano, with a major new piano festival in Cedar Falls and important pianists too numerous to name here. Here are a couple of releases that reached me in 2016; they fit my theme of non-garden-variety repertory:
Richard Steinbach, piano: Fusion: New Music for a New Age (Blue Griffin ), which he released last year at a Carnegie Hall recital but I only came across THIS year. Steinbach earned his doctorate at the University of Iowa and now teaches at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City. This CD comes from his "Fusion Project," in which he gave free recitals and master classes around South America, and also commissioned new works as well as playing classics. Trust me, it's irresistible stuff.
Benjamin Loeb, piano, Livia Sohn, violin, and Geoff Nuttall, viola, Opera Fantasies, vol. 2 (Naxos 8.573403) - Loeb is the executive director of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra (whose conductor is the remarkable Mark Russell Smith), but in his spare time, is an admired conductor, teacher of conducting, concert pianist, and accompanist. Here he's working with one of America's finest young violinists. Livia Sohn (and in two pieces, with her equally famous husband, Geoff Nuttall, of the St. Lawrence Quartet). The program is utterly non-garden-variety, with transcriptions ranging from Handel and Gluck to new pieces by Daron Hagen and Jonathan Berger. Loeb did some of the transcriptions himself - you gotta hear the Verdi, in which Sohn and Nuttall make their strings sound like Italian opera singers at their bel canto best. (FOOTNOTE: Ben is a master Scott Joplin player, and I’m hoping he’ll come in to the studio to do a Joplin special this year, the centennial of that master's death.]