Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020

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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Favorite Albums of 2019

Favorite Albums of 2019

I love end-of-year lists. They condense the significant happenings of the past eleven months into an accessible, easy-to-follow format. They can also celebrate the best of humanity, or remind us of the uncertainty of the times and how far we have to go in achieving a peaceful world. (Though “Baby Yoda” was one of the year’s most Googled terms worldwide, so there is hope for us!) 

In the artistic realm, I especially love reading critics’ picks for the most noteworthy classical music events and audio releases of the past year. The sheer amount of musical achievement and ingenuity is usually staggering, and this year was no exception.

With that said, here are ten of my favorite albums from 2019, along with a handful of honorable mentions. (I much prefer a “favorite” rather than “best of” approach, which acknowledges the inherently subjective nature of this exercise and puts my personal preferences on full display!) If you like what you hear, I encourage you to support the artists and purchase their work instead of just streaming it. In no particular order…

Attacca Quartet – Caroline Shaw: Orange (New Amsterdam Records/Nonesuch Records)

Ever since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, Caroline Shaw has quickly become one of today’s most talked-about young composers, and this past year saw the first album devoted entirely to her music. Featuring five works for string quartet (and one for string duo), this release showcases Shaw’s wondrous composition style, which delights in bright textures, sonorous harmonies, and quirky turns of phrase that occasionally collapse into chaos. Plus, nods to the works of Bach, Ravel, Mozart, Haydn, and even Shaw herself are never far off. The Attacca Quartet‘s dynamic and sensitive performances only increase the impact of this release.

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Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 1: Introduction and Concert Etiquette

Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 1: Introduction and Concert Etiquette

The notion that “classical music is dying” is one that’s been tossed around and repeated so often over the decades that it’s almost become cliché.

The truth of the matter is, classical music is not dying. It’s very much alive and well in an abundance of ways. Say what you will about the digital realm, but there’s no question that services like Amazon, YouTube, and Wikipedia have made it easier than ever to purchase recordings, access videos, and look up information about the music. (There’s even a new website – Primephonic – which is dedicated exclusively to streaming classical music.) Live score-to-film concerts, which have presented everything from Casablanca to Star Wars, can attract hundreds (or thousands) of eager audience members, both young and old. Startups like Groupmuse are reviving the classical salon by staging intimate chamber music performances in people’s homes. These few examples only scratch the surface of how classical music is still thriving and continuing to inspire, amaze, and draw in listeners all over the world.

However, not all is as it could be.

Most notably, it’s difficult to ignore the preeminent symbol of classical music – the concert hall. Though it is, has been, and will likely remain the optimal location to experience this music, the statistics of professional orchestras both in the U.S. and elsewhere often paint a dismal picture. Diminishing budgets, an aging subscriber base, and stagnant repertoire can make it easy to slap the “anachronistic” label on the art form and those who practice it. In a recent article for the Washington Post, music critic Anne Midgette shared a similar concern, saying that, “Classical music isn’t in trouble. It’s classical music’s institutions that are the problem.” (The scandals that recently came to light with prominent conductors Charles Dutoit and James Levine, the latter of which Midgette’s article discusses, do not help things either.) There are exceptions of course, but the future of concerts and professional orchestras as a whole can look rather bleak.

So, what can be done to bring the classical concert fully and unabashedly into the 21st century? How can it maintain its relevance and better reflect our fast-paced and increasingly diverse society? How can it successfully “bridge the gap,” maintaining a respect for the music but positively challenge the way that it is both experienced and understood?

In this multiple-part series, I will outline some thoughts that I have on the current state of the classical concert and provide some suggestions which could breathe some fresh air into this beloved, yet sometimes tired-old institution. (I will also highlight groups and organizations that are currently doing some really awesome and innovative things.) It is my belief that more discussions like this could prove fruitful in enticing new audiences, maintaining the passion of lifelong fans (like myself), and securing the success of the art form for years to come.

Of course, it should be mentioned that the opinions I express here are solely my own. I do recognize that some of them may be built from general information gleaned online, personal biases, and my experiences in a relatively limited sphere (i.e. mainly attending classical concerts in California for most of my life and not many elsewhere). I will do my best to point out any biases or generalizations that I make, or back them up with factual support when appropriate. (Like any good scholar would do!)

In any case, my first set of thoughts are as follows, with more to come soon…

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