Flavorful Picks from 2015's Classical Crop: The IOWA Edition!

Dec 21, 2015

So many exceptional classical albums came out in 2015 that reducing them to a "Top 10" came to seem counterproductive - and part of the solution was recognizing that Iowa-related classical musicians deserved a page of their own. Here it is! (The other part was to not limit myself to 10 - here's a link to what I came up with from outside of Iowa.) Below are 2015 releases by musicians who either live in Iowa or were trained here. I'll put composers first, and then performers, with both lists in alphabetical order. I'm sure I must have missed important releases - please let me know and I'll add them! Anyway, to the list:

COMPOSERS

 Michael Eckert: Brazilian Dreams - Amanda McCandless, Polina Khatsko, Unison Piano Duo (MSR 1549) - When he joined the University of Iowa faculty in 1985, says Eckert, he was “focused on a modernist, post-tonal idiom." But here in Iowa, he says, “gradually I found myself on a music itinerary that led me to write in the style of choro, a music from a country I have never seen.” That would be Brazil, and I find the results of his new pathway irresistible. These performances by Amanda McCandless (clarinet) and Polina Khatsko (piano), both of the University of Northern Iowa, and the husband and wife team of Du Huang and Xiao Hu from Luther College in Decorah, put a smile on MY face whenever I hear it. 

 David Lang: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field - Harlem String Quartet, Beverly  O’Regan Thiele, Laquita Mitchell, Jay O. Sanders  (Canteloupe CA 21107)  -  Lang did his graduate work in Iowa and it mattered. He says, "There was a teacher in composition at the University of Iowa named Martin Jenni…. he was amazing. He knew a lot of stuff that I’d never heard of before. So when I thought about grad school, I went to Iowa. I was happy I did. It was really a kind of golden age. I really loved it.” (Go Hawks!) So I’ll include this New Yorker on this list, okay?  In 2008, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his deeply moving  the little matchgirl passion.  The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is in fact an earlier work, which he wrote in 2002 with Obie-winning playwright Mac Wellman, but it was released on record only this year. Based on a one-page story by Ambrose Bierce about a slaveowner in Selma, Alabama in 1854 who literally vanishes as he crosses a field, the short, mystical opera treats it from seven different viewpoints, Rashomon-style. It’s deeply haunting, thoughtful and moving; hear it! 

David Lang (and others): Soundtrack to Youth (Milan) - Paolo Sorrentino’s second English-language film stars Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Rachel Weisz, and in addition to existing works, features new music by Lang, some of which is central to the plot. Sample Lang's Simple Song #3, with his own lyrics sung by Sumi Jo with no less than Viktoria  Mullova on violin:

Peter Schickele: String Quartet no. 1, "American Dreams" - Saint Helens String Quartet (Navona 6004) - Schickele, who turned 80 this year, was born in Ames in 1935 and lived there until 1945 (his father taught agricultural science at Iowa State); so I feel safe claiming him for Iowa. He is celebrating his 80th year with characteristic energy, including a national tour of live P.D.Q. Bach "Golden Anniversary" concerts. (The grand finale is December 28 in New York City at Town Hall, the place where, 50 years ago, Schickele first introduced us to Bach's "last and least son.") But Schickele is also a gifted composer of concert music, and this recording of his first string quartet (along with new works by Kenneth Benshoof, Bern Herbolsheimer, and Janice Giteck) is a fine introduction to its beguilingly American charms.

PERFORMERS

  Jeffrey Agrell, et al.: Soundings: Improvisations and Compositions for Horn and Electronica  (MSR 1529) - University of Iowa horn professor Agrell takes big risks on this new CD: accompanied by electronica and percussion, he does a lot of improv. I was a little worried about how it would sound, but needn’t have been: it’s a stunning, even mesmerizing success.

Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival: Kevin Puts, Seascapes (Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, through Naxos) -  I wrote about this album in my main "Flavorful Picks of 2015" post, but mention it here because pianist Orion Weiss was born and (initially) raised in Iowa City.

Bruce Brubaker: Glass Piano (Infine 1032) - Born and raised in Des Moines, Bruce has pioneered the performance of music of Philip Glass, John Adams, Meredith Monk, Nico Muhly, and other leading composers of our time. He’s the head of piano at the New England Conservatory of Music, but comes back to Des Moines annually for his SummerMusic Festival (this year, I got to interview him while he was here). Philip Glass released a memoir this year and several major recordings of his music came out - but this is the one to hear. NPR called it "flowing, meditative" and "thoughtful." Pitchfork Media noted that while Glass himself has recorded much of this music, Brubaker's readings "distinguish themselves brilliantly"; he makes one transition sound "grander and consequential" and another piece sound "more ecstatic and visionary." 

Scott Conklin, violin, Alan Huckleberry and Jason Sifford, piano: Pieces & Passage (Albany 1546) - The University of Iowa violinist plays a diverse yet subtly integrated mix of pieces by Ching-chu Hu (an Iowa City native who is now a professor in Ohio), Gabriela Lena Frank, Joel Puckett, Evan Chamber, Chen Yi (born in China, now in Kansas City), William Bolcom, and Ethan Wickman. Some are first recordings, including my two favorites -  Hu's "The Hope Moment" and Wickman's "Passages," both of which I found moving and beautiful. All demonstrate that Conklin’s playing is ravishing and his interpretations insightful and communicative. I liked this album immediately, but such is its profundity and accomplishment that over time it continues to grow on me. 

 Hannah Holman, cello, and Rene Lecuona, piano: Trouvailles! (Blue Griffin 359) - Iowa listeners have known for years about the passion and poetry of Holman’s cello playing and Lecuona’s piano playing - but non-Iowans should know too. So it’s gratifying to read one of America’s leading music critics, Jerry Dubin, writing of this 2015 release, “This one is breathtaking… [Holman’s] tone and technique are the stuff that cello legends are made of.” He also praises Lecuona’s “scintillating brilliance.” The featured works by Leon Bellman, Erno Dohnanyi, and Frank Bridge are neglected masterpieces. Holman refers to them in the album's title, which means "lucky find!" - and it's a great description of the album itself and, for that matter, of the artists. (For non-Iowans: Lecuona is professor of piano at the University of Iowa; Holman is principal cellist of the Quad City Symphony and a cellist with the New York City Ballet Orchestra; previously she played in the Maia Quartet and in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle.)

Murasaki Duo, Duo Virtuoso (Delos 3480) - This diverse recital moves from two light-hearted takes on Rossini ("Figaro" by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and a set of variations by Bohuslav Martinu) to Argentina (Le Grand Tango by Astor Piazzolla and a piece by Alberto Ginastera) to the seriously Germanic (the Cello Sonata no. 1 by Brahms). All are played to perfection by an Iowa husband and wife, cellist Eric Kutz and pianist Miko Kominami. Both teach at Luther College in Decorah (she is also principal keyboardist of Orchestra Iowa) and like the other artists on this list, both play on an international level.

Andrew Parker, oboe and Alan Huckleberry, piano, The Singing Oboe (MSR 1514) - If you read Mozart in the Jungle, you’ll know how tired oboists get of the joke about their instrument being “an ill wind that nobody blows good.” When you hear Andrew Parker of the University of Iowa (and Quad City Symphony) you realize that the punch line is not only stale, it's also nonsense. Parker puts his oboe to the most stringent test for any instrumentalist, that of sounding like a great singer, and he passes supremely. He plays his own transcriptions of songs by Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, and his wordless "singing" is both nuanced and natural - so much so that it makes you forget that you are listening to transcriptions. Pianist Huckleberry is, as usual, superb.

 Sarah Plum, violin (with San Diego New Music/ Nicholas Deyoe, and Chamber Music Midwest/ Akira Mori): Music for a New Century (Blue Griffin 371)  - This album features two concertos written for Plum, a major violinist who teaches at Drake (here's a link to her recent live performance of Beethoven at Iowa Public Radio's studios). Sidney Corbett's Yael is based on the writings of a Edmond Jabes, a Jewish writer born in Egypt in 1912, who lived most of his life in France and died in Paris in 1991; Christopher Adler's Concerto is inspired by Russian avant-garde painters of the early 20th century. It's safe to say that no future performer will surpass the dedicatee.

Sarah Plum, violin, Timothy Lovelace, piano:  Bela Bartok: Complete Works for Violin and Piano, vol. 1 (Blue Griffin 373-   And nobody, but nobody, plays Bartok better than Plum (special note to conductors: wouldn’t it be cool to program Bartok’s Violin Concerto no. 2 with her? Just sayin'). This is vol. 1 of a projected two-part series.

 Francis Poulenc: Complete Music for Winds and Piano - Oboe Sonata; Flute Sonata; Clarinet Sonata; Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano; Sextet for Flute, Oboe Clarinet, Bassoon, French Horn and Piano; Villanelle; Elegy - The Iowa Ensemble (MSR 1540) - Before we became a US state, our terrain belonged to the French, who called it La Louisiane after the French monarch and named that big river not the Mississippi but the Colbert (after Louis’s finance minister). Later on, our state flag was modeled on that of France; and then there’s our capital - I’ll turn that over to our friends at Raygun, who put out a t-shirt reading “Des Moines: French for ‘the moines'.”  None of this has anything to do, of course, with how a group of University of Iowa faculty members could play Poulenc with such impeccable taste, style and esprit. Flute/ piccolo soloist Nicole Esposito, says one national reviewer, has "a beauty of tone and fluidity of expression that is exceptional" on record, and "the well-known bassoonist Benjamin Coelho is impressive as usual" (and he goes on to say that everyone else is excellent too).  Most Iowa releases this year explored new or non-standard repertory, and I can understand why our artists don’t want to put out yet another Bach or Beethoven disc; but this is such a treat that you can only hope they will! 

Quad City Symphony Orchestra/ Mark Russell Smith  - Michael Torke "Oracle" and other works played by other artists (Ecstatic 92261);  The Quad City Symphony commissioned and premiered this work, and this recording shows the world just how world-class this Iowa-Illinois group is. The rest of the disc - other new works of Torke - are as engaging and appealing as one would expect from this major composer.

The Wartburg Choir led by Dr. Lee Nelson: Sanctuary (Songs of Prayer and Renewal) and Alleluia! (Wartburg Records). Our state is a mecca for choral singing, and these two releases from Waverly can stand in for a host of accomplished, adventurous choral ensembles. The repertory ranges from Renaissance to brand-new, including such Iowa natives as Rene Clausen in his beautiful setting of Christina Rosetti' s Love Came down at Christmas. The music is so perfectly chosen and performed that either (or both) discs would make ideal holiday gifts. A highlight: when the great Morten Lauridsen was composer-in-residence at Wartburg in January, 2014, he requested that the group record his newest piece, a setting of the poem Prayer by Dana Gioia. When you hear the result, you'll understand why he asked! Lauridsen plays the piano part himself; here's the video. (One detail that touches my heart that much more: notice the choristers holding hands):