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Classical Sound Advice Celebrates Black History, Grammy Winners And Love

Lebrecht Music/Corbis

Robert and Clara Schumann

Lebrecht Music/Corbis

February is a time for celebration in this week’s Sound Advice. Classical host Kevin Doherty features six noteworthy tracks to mark achievements in black history, music and love for Valentine’s Day and Black History Month.

Songs Celebrating Black History

Florence Price - “Symphony No. 1,” performed by the Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra

By now, many have heard the story of the 2009 discovery an amazing cache of musical manuscripts by Florence Price, which were found in an abandoned home just south of Chicago. It was covered in great detail last year by NPR, The New Yorker and other outlets. Price was the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra.

Even though it was written in the 1930s, Price pays homage to her European Classical training - but make no mistake this is an American Symphony. You can hear underpinnings of Jazz and African American spiritual melodies as well as an overall sense of Americana. The opening to this symphony is unabashedly Romantic but one can hear that American bent from the very start.

This recent release from Naxos features the Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra and it’s the second recording of this symphony. It’s paired with a world premiere recording of her Fourth Symphony. Since Price’s music has been much more heavily integrated into the canon, it’s become clear to me that something was missing in the American Classical Music vernacular

Duke Ellington - “In A Sentimental Mood” performed by Rachel Barton Pine

This Valentine’s Day calls for a selection from violinist Rachel Barton Pine’s most recent record Blue’s Dialogues celebrating African American composers. Her rendition of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood is a standout recording.

Songs Celebrating Grammy Winners

Mason Bates - “Ma Bell” from The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs performed by the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra featuring baritone Edward Parks and tenor Garrett Sorenson

Quintessential German Romantic Richard Wagner once referred to a thing he called “Gesamtkunstwerk” (the Total Art Work) — meaning in order to create the highest art, one must use everything at their disposal. Here in the 21st century, say what you will about the melding of electronic and acoustic music for art’s sake, but these next two American composers and recent Grammy winners have effectively done just that.

Mason Bates is the 2018 Composer of the Year, named  by Musical America. Bates is the Composer in Residence at the Kennedy Center and he’s on the faculty at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. And now he’s the Grammy winner for Best Opera Recording

The Revolution of Steve Jobs just won the Grammy for Best Opera Recording. It follows the trajectory of Jobs’ life through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. And like much of the composer’s music, the opera infuses electronic with full orchestration. An orchestration that also includes heavy percussion, guitar, sax, and piano as well.

In the duet, “Ma Bell” still early on in the 70s portion of the opera, Jobs and his buddy and business partner “Woz” Steve Wozniak have created a device with which they can make long distance phone calls for free by circumventing the phone company. In this duet, the two pioneers celebrate their victory by pranking the Vatican and cheer for the downfall of the corporate giant. You’ll hear Classically trained singers tapping into their belting chops with music that almost errs on the side of blues, jazz, and musical theater.

Laurie Anderson - “Landfall” performed by the Kronos Quartet

Laurie Anderson is a renaissance woman for a modern age. Anderson is an experimental musician, composer, violinist, sculptor, artist, filmmaker. Her recent album features San Francisco’s resident New Music Experts — Kronos Quartet. It won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music / Small Ensemble Performance.

This music plays like a sonic documentary/art installment which she wrote in the wake of the 2012 mega-storm Hurricane Sandy. Anderson, a New Yorker, was directly affected by the storm.

The album starts with the onset of the storm. The opening track “CNN Predicts a Monster Storm” is followed by “Wind Whistles Through the Dark City” then we get to the ever so ominous and brooding “The Water Rises.” Anderson, like Bates, uses a fusion of electronic and acoustic to get her point across. She also takes a musical cue from minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Here is a moment in the score that gives the sense of imminent danger beginning with what almost sounds like the ticking of the clock.

Not a lot of breakaway hits on this album. It’s best listened to in its entirety or in chunks. This may seem like a task, but let the story, and the atmospheric music along with Anderson’s spoken word take you away. Tragic, no doubt, but like any good storyteller, Anderson is able to find beauty and levity throughout.

Songs Celebrating Love

Clara Schumann - “Piano Concerto in A Minor” performed by The Women’s Philharmonic

Clara Schumann was young when she began writing her piano concerto. At 16, she finished the work in 1836, some 10 years before the older Robert Schumann would write his one-and-only piano concerto. Robert did help Clara with the orchestration on some of this concerto. Regardless, this is great music for any composer especially a 16-year-old.

After an exciting first movement, the orchestra takes a break in the second movement in favor of a gorgeous duet for cello and piano. Then the timpani signals the triumphant return of the orchestra for a powerhouse of a final movement including a driving piano solo.

Two years later, Robert would propose to Clara, and four years later in 1840, they married, much to the chagrin of Clara’s father.

Robert Schumann - “Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love)” performed by Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Alfred Brendel

1840 was also the year that Robert would write some of his most beautiful and heart-wrenching music in the form of a song cycle called Dichterliebe, or “A Poet’s Love.” There were few at the time who could write for piano and voice so perfectly. And the piano is so prominent, it’s more of a duet between the two as opposed to the piano being merely accompaniment.

The poetry here is, “In the wondrous month May, when the buds sprang, love sprang up in my heart: in beautiful May, when the birds all sang, I told you my desire and longing.”

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