A new year, a new decade and Beethoven’s 250th birthday are the perfect occasion for CapRadio’s classical hosts to look back on some of their favorite classical pieces. Here are the pieces of music they can’t get enough of as we head into 2020.
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Johann Johansson — “Danse” — Performed by Echo Collective
Johann Johannson still had quite a body of work yet to be released when he died in February of 2018. One of the most recent releases from the famed Icelandic film composer is “12 Conversations,” a concert work based on conversations he had with German painter Thilo Heinzmann. Johansson’s music is rooted in the traditional Western classical style, but was often bolstered by electronic additives to give his sound a more expansive quality.
“12 Conversations” is a first for Johansson in that it is written strictly for string quartet. The 11th track on the album, “Danse,” strays a bit from Johansson’s trademark ambient, melancholic sound and is reminiscent of something from a French Baroque suite. Still this album is best enjoyed on a rainy day, or any day you’re feeling contemplative.
Nina C. Young — “Kolokol for Two Pianos and Electronics” — Performed by Nadia Shpachenko and Joanne Pearce Martin
Pianist Nadia Shpachenko’s recent album “The Poetry of Places” is a testament to the important role that “place” plays in music. The Grammy-nominated album features composers who share a love of architecture, and that inspiration is well documented in this record of world premieres.
Nina Young’s composition “Kolokol” is based on 13th century Russian Orthodox bells that hang at Harvard University. Young traveled to Harvard to capture field recordings of the 17 bells, which she seamlessly infuses into her piece alongside two pianos and other electronic sounds. The bells, in a way, create a similar atmosphere to the pianos though they exist outside standard piano tuning. “Kolokol’s” hauntingly metallic quality makes for an exotic and incredibly enticing work of art.
John Adams — “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” — Performed by Montreal Symphony Orchestra
It’s my conjecture that when the history of music is reflected upon in the year 2120, all of the books will have one thing in common: John Adams will still be regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. He has a knack for taking the repetitive and bare-bones nature of minimalism, a musical style popularized by Philip Glass and Steve Reich in the ‘70s, and juxtaposing that with his love of the extravagances of the great romantics of the 19th century.
“Short Ride in a Fast Machine” is an intoxicating speed freak of a fanfare truly indicative of this unique dichotomy. It should be noted that Adams says he wrote this piece while recovering from the “terrifying experience” of being driven around a race track by a friend in a “fancy” Italian race car.
Ludwig von Beethoven — “Symphony #9: IV. Finale (Ode to Joy)” — Performed by Leonard Bernstein with various international orchestras, soloists & choruses
Throughout 2020, orchestras and arts organizations around the world will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 1770. There is little need to explain this iconic composer’s impact on the world of music. It’s simply time to celebrate, and one need only Google “Beethoven 250” to find events happening near you.
Here are some of the local and visiting organizations performing Beethoven in the first months of 2020:
That's just in the CapRadio region. Imagine all the Beethoven bookings around the world in 2020! If you’re looking for more concerts (and not just Beethoven), check out upcoming classical concerts in our region with this curated guide.
In the meantime, give a listen to what is probably the capstone to Beethoven’s remarkable life and career: the choral “Ode to Joy” movement from his 9th Symphony from Leonard Bernstein’s historic performance in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is especially poignant as Bernstein changed the chorus’s word “freude (joy)” to “freiheit (freedom),” modifying the movement to an “Ode to Freedom” for the occasion. This legendary performance certainly demonstrates Beethoven’s importance to the world. Goosebumps!
Esa-Pekka Salonen — “Cello Concerto: III” — Performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic & Yo Yo Ma
2020 will mark the end of an era and the beginning of another for the San Francisco Symphony as Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas steps down after 25 years. Stepping up to the podium in the 2020-2021 season will be conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.
A fan of technology, Salonen has incorporated virtual reality into his concerts among other innovations. With this new appointment in San Francisco, at the epicenter of innovative high tech thinking, he looks forward to bringing new life to concert going. He told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“I believe that the format and the ritual of a classical concert can and should be developed. I don’t want to mess with the actual material, but I am interested in enhancing this experience towards more of a multisensory approach.”
To help in his innovative endeavors, Salonen has already recruited a “think tank” of eight collaborators from various disciplines to explore experimentation, including musicians, activists and even a roboticist.
The forward-looking appointment of Salonen to the San Francisco Symphony could have an effect on the world of orchestral music well beyond Davies Symphony Hall.
As a sample of Salonen’s innovative work as a composer, this is the final movement of his Cello Concerto (with soloist Yo Yo Ma). It’s an evocative work that one could imagine matched with some sort of technology to create an immersive sensory experience.
Johann Sebastian Bach — “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor” — Performed by Olivier Latry
Looking forward also means looking back on a devastating event in 2019 about which the most recent news is potentially heartbreaking. The 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris suffered major damage from fire in April 2019 and recent news reports are that there is still a 50/50 chance for a complete loss of the structure.
While the massive Cavaillé-Coll organ inside the cathedral was undamaged by fire, smoke and water may have affected it. No one really will know until at least 2021, when restoration is scheduled to begin. With over 8,000 pipes, the organ is the largest in France. The main body of the organ was built in the 19th century but some parts of it date back even earlier.
Olivier Latry, the Notre Dame Cathedral Organist since 1985, made what would be the instrument’s final recording months before the April fire. “Bach to the Future” is an album of all Bach. Even those who are not fans of organ music will be enthralled by this entire album that demonstrates the cavernous immensity of the cathedral and the power of the massive instrument. Latry’s playing exhibits the range of the organ from reverentially quiet to literally wall-shaking loud. And while this piece may be overplayed, familiarity with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d-minor can lend perspective to the sonic particulars with which this world treasure is blessed.
For me, there is no more perfect combination of instruments than the piano trio: piano, violin and cello. The timbres, the way each instrument speaks and interacts with the others… There’s just something about it. I’ve chosen for you today my three favorite piano trio pieces of all time. I’ve performed all three at some point (some year, some decade) in my life, and they are a part of me moving forward into the next chapter in 2020.
Dmitri Shostakovich — “Piano Trio No 2.: IV. Allegretto” — Performed by Martha Argerich, Gidon Kremer, and Mischa Maisky
This piece is as disturbing and macabre as it is catchy and beautiful. It was written during World War II, in 1944. The Nazis had just retreated from the eastern front, allowing the world to discover the atrocities of the death camps at Treblinka and Majdanek. Around the same time, Shostakovich’s closest friend died at age 41 while stuck in Siberia. He mourned in a letter: “I cannot express in words all of the grief I felt when I received the news of the death of Ivan Ivanovich … who was my closest friend. I owe all my education to him.”
This piece is an externalization of that substantial darkness. But there is also joy and hope and dance and life unvanquished as well. An indomitable Jewish theme is prominently quoted throughout, eventually winning over what sounds like the marching of Nazi boots. I slept for many hours after performing this one, let me tell you.
Ludwig van Beethoven — “Piano Trio No 1: II. Largo assai ed espressivo (The Ghost Trio)” — Performed by the Beaux Arts Trio
When Beethoven’s piano student, Carl Czerny, first heard this chilling piece performed, he said this movement reminded him of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Sure enough, later on when Beethoven’s writings were examined, there were references to Shakespeare and Macbeth, and this movement possibly coinciding with the scene for the Three Witches. And so, this piece’s ghostly nickname stuck and it is aptly named as you will hear.
(As Victor Forman stated above, Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year. I didn’t pick this piece for that reason, as Beethoven will already be getting more of his fare share of nods in the coming days! It truly is my favorite, and is the hardest I’ve worked on any piece of chamber music. Our coachings on this piece were emotionally and technically exhausting, and grew us as artists in ways that were inescapably transformational.)
Kenji Bunch — “Concerto for Piano Trio and Percussion” — Performed by the Ahn Trio, Brian Resnick & Matthew Gold
I picked this piece for several reasons. First, it’s just so fun to hear (and to play!). Second, it’s a novel concept. A concerto is usually a solo instrument out in front of a full orchestra. A concerto for just piano trio and percussionists is a cool modern spin on an old form. I also love the daring it takes to incorporate a drum set into a classical piece of music! That is so very bold indeed and sure to rile some feathers. And finally, It’s notable that this piece is by an American composer and performed by American musicians. And the Ahn Trio is made up of three sisters no less! That makes me think of my own talented musical siblings and I love it.
While you’re on the Ahn Trio and Kenji Bunch train, take a second and listen to "Lullaby for My Favorite Insomniac" as well. This has been an intense playlist and you’ve earned it.
Happy New Year!