Choosing the best classical music of the decade is a herculean task, but CapRadio Classical hosts Jennifer Reason, Kevin Doherty and Victor Forman have undertaken the challenge for you in this month’s Ear to Ear playlist blog.
With everything from new operas to significant reimagining of classic favorites, they have selected the music that has impacted them and our listeners in the past decade. Enjoy!
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How do you possibly choose the best music of an entire decade? You can’t. But you can choose music that deeply impacted you, and that shows the encouraging directions we’re moving as the next decade begins. The pieces I’ve chosen to honor the closing of this decade feature gender inclusivity, celebration of the new (rather than fixation with the old) and honest dealings with our current times and issues.May progress in the arts continue unimpeded!
Jake Heggie — “Vesuvio Il Mio Unico Amico- Si Non Io,” from “Great Scott” — Performed by Joyce DiDonato and the Dallas Opera Orchestra
Jake Heggie is redefining opera for this country as we speak, something that’s sorely needed! His opera “Great Scott,” which premiered in 2015, is an example of this. It’s a good-natured farce that looks at the opera world through the story of a struggling opera company funded by a football team owner and his opera-loving wife.
“Great Scott” is hilariously spot-on about the reality of making music in our modern world. It also pokes fun at the state of classical music (and therefore, at itself) with statements like “Opera isn’t new, it’s over.” “Great Scott” is exactly what this decade needed: An honest piece of art grounded in the present day that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The piece I’ve chosen from “Great Scott” is a beautiful aria sung in the middle of the show as they work on staging the “rediscovered” fictional dead composer Bazzetti, before dissolving back into recitative lines.
Julia Wolfe — “Flowers,” from “Anthracite Fields” — Performed by the Choir of Trinity Cathedral Wallstreet, the Bang On A Can All-stars, and Julian Wachner
Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music, “Anthracite Fields” deals with the history of coal mining in the U.S. Anthracite is a form of coal, and there are extensive such mining fields around the area of Philadelphia were Wolfe grew up.
This piece honors the hard-working people who sacrificed so much to mine the fields and fuel our nation’s rapid growth at the turn of the 20th century. The coal mines produced a seemingly countless number of accidents and victims, many of whom were young boys, as this was before child labor laws. This piece is for them.
“Flowers,” the track I selected, is a brief respite from the dark tale, and is the recounting of the gardens all the coal miners’ wives kept at home. In this new decade, may we continue our progress towards greater human rights and respect for our planet.
Jennifer Higdon — “blue cathedral” — Performed by the Oberlin Symphony Orchestra
There are times in our lives that transcend words. Those moments surely filled this past decade, as they will the next. Music is there in those times when no other form of expression does justice.
Jennifer Higdon is riding a wave of success, having won multiple awards and honors, but that doesn’t shield her from grief. When her brother Andrew Blue died, Higdon found herself contemplating life and loss and what it is to live. ‘blue cathedral’ is the result.
In the piece, Higdon features solos for the clarinet, which her brother played, and for the flute, which she plays. The flute appears first in the piece, as Higdon is the older sibling, but towards the end of the work, “it is the flute that drops out and the clarinet that continues on in the upward progressing journey,” Higdon said.
Sarah Kirkland Snider — “Nausicaa,” from “Penelope” — Performed by Shara Worden, Signal and Brad Lubman
Sara Kirland Snider has been deemed "one of the decade's more gifted, up-and-coming modern classical composers” by Pitchfork, so her work is a fitting decade-closer.
“Penelope” is a heart-breakingly relevant composition. A husband returns home to his wife after suffering brain damage imposed by war. Together they wait for him to find himself again, and the only way she can help unlock his mind and trauma is through reading him Homer’s “Odyssey.”
“Nausicaa” is a beautiful moment of calm in the middle of a terrible bittersweet journey, and sends us into the new decade poignantly admonishing, “Don’t be afraid, stranger.”
Max Richter — “Recomposed: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons” — Performed by Daniel Hope and the Berlin Chamber Orchestra
German-born British composer Max Richter loved Vivaldi’s music as a child, but as he got older, he says he grew somewhat tired of the Italian-Baroque composer’s most recognizable opus.
He told NPR’s Audie Cornish in 2012, "For me, the record and the project are trying to reclaim the piece, to fall in love with it again."
And reclaim the piece he did. Richter says he discarded about 75 percent of Vivaldi’s material, but what he left in is unabashedly Vivaldi. Often, the experimental nature of new music can be alienating to many listeners, but by incorporating some of Vivaldi’s catchiest hooks, Richter gives everyone a little something to hang on to.
From there Richter veers off into uncharted territory, using both acoustic and electronic tools to create breathtaking and powerful soundscapes. It just sounds a little bit more “poppy” than the original, if I might be so bold.
Listeners often enjoy it when I play selections from Richter’s version of “The Four Seasons.” I get more comments on it than just about any other piece of contemporary music that we spin on air. It never hurts to give an old standby some new life.
Valerie Coleman — “Portraits of Langston” — Performed by the McGill/McHale Trio and Mahershala Ali
10 years after its first performance, “Portraits of Langston” finally received its world premiere recording in 2017 courtesy of the McGill/McHale Trio. “Portraits” is a look at the Harlem Renaissance through the poetry of Langston Hughes.
The six-movement work is evocative of the era, which Hughes describes in-depth in his writing. Each movement is preceded by a reading of his poetry by Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali. The juxtaposition of poetry and music is incredibly effective, with Hughes/Ali essentially setting up Coleman’s music.
The music itself is reminiscent of jazz and early 20th-century French composers like Milhaud and Poulenc, whose music was often inspired by what they referred to as “Le Jazz.” At the same time, shades of Copland, Still and early-century Americana are ever-present. Coleman expertly paints a musical picture of the people and places referenced in Hughes’ poetry.
Caroline Shaw — “Partita for 8 Voices” — Performed by Roomful of Teeth
I want to end with the award-winning choral work from the now 36-year-old Caroline Shaw called “Partita for 8 Voices,” which I’m sure will make it onto many “Best Classical Music of the Decade” lists to come.
This is a virtuosic choral piece that sounds as though it’s having a little fun with the musical genre. And you know what? It is. However, it’s not a parody of choral music. What Shaw and the Massachusetts-based choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth have accomplished here is a masterclass in how to utilize the human voice.
At 30 years old, Shaw became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for “Partita.” There are some jarring moments in the work, but they are all so well contained that this piece becomes nearly impossible to walk away from. Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices” is a unique expression in vocal harmony and technique, and it’s one of the most original pieces of music I’ve heard in a very long time.
John Adams — “Scheherazade.2: III: Scheherazade and the Men with Beards” — Performed by Leila Josefowicz, the St Louis Symphony, and David Robertson
The 2015 composition “Sheherazade.2” by American composer John Adams was inspired by an exhibition Adams saw about the history of the "Arabian Nights" tales. He was shocked at the casual brutality he saw toward women in the stories. This inspired him to compose “Scheherazade.2,” a dramatic symphony about an empowered woman confronting oppression. “Scheherazade” is the principal character in a musical reckoning of the treatment of women today.
Adams composed the piece specifically for violinist Leila Josefowicz, a champion of Adams’ music, and a friend and collaborator for nearly twenty years. I’ve chosen the tumultuous third movement in which Scheherazade is tried in court. This “trial” itself a brutal scene of harsh accusation, calm response and colorful orchestration.
Mason Bates — “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs; Scene 5: It's Like Totally Simple” — Performed by the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, Michael Christie, Edward Parks, and Garrett Sorenson
American composer Mason Bates is known for using electronics in his compositions, and combined music and technology in 2017 when he wrote his first opera, based on the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
While “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” mostly shows Jobs’ personal and spiritual life, we also get glimpses into the technology that changed how we live today, with Bates’ modern music a perfect fit for the story.
In this selection from Bates’ opera, Jobs and Steve Wozniak place an international test call to the Vatican on the "blue box" they built to make free long-distance calls, pretending to be Henry Kissinger.
What follows is their realization that with the right slingshot, any clever David could fell a corporate Goliath (like a telephone monopoly). Jobs has said that without Wozniak’s blue box, there never would have been an Apple.
Christos Hatzis — “Departures: III. Progress Blues” — Performed by the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra, Anexandre Myrat, and Patrick Gallois
Though Jobs and Wozniak created and marketed technology that (debatably?) improved our world, the next music cautions against wholesale embrace of technology and the long term negative effects it could have.
In his suite “Departures,” Greek-born composer (later Canadian citizen) Christos Hatzis reflects on the death of friends and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan.
This final movement, “Progress Blues,” is a meditation on the advance of technology that once again led Japan to suffer nuclear disaster.
Despite the destruction wrought by the 2011 tsunami, damage to the nuclear power plant in its path proved the more critical threat. It left longer lasting effects that cause us to ponder the long term “blues” we could face as technology progresses further into our future.