Happy Birthday, Ludwig!

This is intended as a postscript to my January 2020 blog post, “32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday.” Click here to check it out.

On January 27, 2020, I published a blog post entitled “32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday).” In it, I expressed my lifelong admiration for Beethoven and his music, but also my mixed feelings on the celebrations planned for his 250th anniversary year.

“Happy Birthday Jesus Beethoven. Sorry your party’s so lame.”

Turns out that most of it hasn’t aged well. In early March, a little under two months after publishing the post, the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Live performances with packed audiences became all but impossible, and one by one, individual concerts and even entire seasons were canceled in the interest of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Now, nine months later, the situation has improved very little, even with a vaccine on the horizon. Any hope of an all-encompassing Beethoven celebration in 2020 has been extinguished, yet another casualty of this dumpster fire of a year.

Some people are lamenting the loss of the Beethoven year, while others are celebrating it. Personally, I feel somewhere in the middle. Yes, it’s absolutely true that Beethoven didn’t really need all the hubbub of this anniversary year in the first place. His music is performed so much already and would have continued to appear on concert programs either way, anniversary or not. The celebrations that were planned seemed, in some cases, overblown, unimaginative, and even a tad lazy. And of course, there was the very real possibility of it all becoming excessive. As Aesop allegedly said, “It is possible to have too much of a good thing.”

On the other hand, yes, it is a loss. Though I waffle back and forth in my opinions on Beethoven 9, there’s absolutely nothing like experiencing it live and I was greatly looking forward to hearing at least one performance of the work in August. I was also excited for other performances that juxtaposed Beethoven with newer or less-performed works, such as Brooklyn Rider’s striking program that was to pair Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang Quartet (No. 15) with newly-commissioned works by contemporary women composers. The pandemic has made me—and millions of others—hungry for live performance, and though I may not have been enthusiastic about the idea of sitting through an all-Beethoven concert back in January, honestly, that sounds pretty great right now (even if it did include Wellington’s Victory!)

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Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020

Can I be perfectly honest for a second? I almost didn’t write this blog post. This year has been unbelievably challenging and draining on so many levels—COVID, protests, wildfires, murder hornets… need I continue? For a good while, a year-end wrap-up of my favorite albums from 2020 seemed like an almost pointless, even naive, undertaking.

Reaching the end of 2020 like…

Truth be told, though, music was one of the main things that helped me get through this “dumpster fire” of a year, and there was so much great stuff released despite (or in spite of) the state of the world. I truly believe that it deserves proper recognition. In fact, it quickly became a challenge to narrow down my initial list. Once I began thinking about my favorite releases from this year, the list grew to almost 40 candidates. Not bad for a year such as this!

Since this was such a “wonky” year (boy, is that an understatement!), this list is also a little wonky. Due to the presence of so many streamed music events, both live and pre-recorded, I decided to include some of those as well. As a result, this year’s list showcases 10 of my musical favorites from 2020—6 albums and 4 music streams. Once again, though, there were a ton more things that I could have selected. A handful of other favorites appear at the bottom of this post as “honorable mentions.”

Same as years past, each listing is accompanied by a short blurb and an audio or video clip. (In a few cases, there’s even a full recording.) If you like what you hear or see, I highly encourage you to support the artists by purchasing the album or donating directly to them and/or the performing organization. Artists need our support now more than ever, and financial contributions are one way to show our gratitude and help guarantee a return to concert venues once it’s safe.

Before launching into the list, an amusing anecdote: I was recently perusing through some old blog posts and noticed that in December 2017 (the year I started this blog), my first end-of-year album wrap-up began as follows: “It’s absolutely no question that 2017 was a heck of a year. Political tensions, violence, scandals – no year in recent memory has seemed as fraught with discord and turmoil as this one.” Oh to be a time traveler and inform my 2017 self what a “heck of a year” really looks like.

Anyway, here are my favorite albums and streams from 2020. In no particular order…

String Orchestra of Brooklyn & Eli Spindel – afterimage (Furious Artisans)

I am a sucker for concert programs that juxtapose old and new music, and this album scratches that itch perfectly. Released in January (pre-pandemic), afterimage perfectly pairs two recent works by Christopher Cerrone and Jacob Cooper with older pieces by Paganini and Pergolesi. The newer works are a particular highlight. Cooper’s expansive, time-suspending reimagining of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater emerges seamlessly from Cerrone’s luminous High Windows, a concerto grosso-like showcase for string quintet and orchestra. Add in phenomenal performances by the Argus Quartet, singers Mellissa Hughes and Kate Maroney, and the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, and you’ve got an album that I had on repeat many times throughout the year.

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30 Days with Bach

On September 28, I embarked on a somewhat odd task: to listen to a single classical piece every day for 30 days. Why you ask? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps it was out of a desire to really, intimately get to know a piece of music. Perhaps it was to spice up the doldrums of daily life as we pass the six-month mark of the pandemic. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, the idea was there and I was eager to try it out.

Me listening to Bach each day

Once the task was set, I selected Bach’s Cantata BWV 150 (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich or, “Lord, I long for you”) to be the “guinea pig” piece and settled on a good recording of it—specifically, the 2017 recording with the choir Vox Luminis and conductor Lionel Meunier. (However, I decided early on that it would be OK if I wanted to venture to other recordings on occasion.) I also decided early on to pair this 30-day challenge with a series of blog posts. After each day’s listen, I would write a short entry that provided a tidbit, historical factoid, thought, reaction, or musing about the piece. Ultimately, each entry would build into a chronicle of my month-long listening journey.

Since I was writing on the blog every day, I decided to keep the entries short—just a few sentences to a short paragraph or two (although there are a few quite a bit longer than that!) It’s also worth pointing out that I was pretty well acquainted with this Cantata before starting the challenge, so a few of the entries contain thoughts that had already come to mind well before this. Nevertheless, it’s the first time these thoughts have been put to paper (or screen, in this case). Additionally, three brief notes:

  1. When referring to English translations of the German text, I alternated between using Pamela Diehl‘s translation on Emmanuel Music and the translation on All of Bach.
  2. Throughout the daily blogs, I often reference specific musical moments in Bach’s Cantata. In most cases, the blog text is accompanied by a hyperlink, cued up to a YouTube recording that begins at the corresponding moment. If you would like to listen to these, click the bolded text throughout. (There are some other hyperlinks throughout as well that link to other things.)
  3. At the bottom of this post, I included a Spotify playlist containing six full recordings of the Cantata, each of which I listened to at some point during the month.

Without further ado, here are my 30 days with Bach…

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