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.

Continue reading “Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020”

Wagner Guilt

Below is another guest contribution from Tanner Cassidy, author of last month’s post on issues of programming in classical music. Here, Tanner addresses his conflicting relationship with Wagner, his music, and his complex legacy.

Tanner Cassidy

I have suffered tremendous loss in a time of tremendous loss. At the end of a string of announced cancellations, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has canceled their production of the Ring Cycle. Plane tickets, years of payments, and careful planning it seems were all for not. Due to the way of the world right now, the creeping paranoia of cancellation has been brewing for some time, but the news finally arriving initially felt like I was finally beginning to accept this impending grief as reality.

However, even admitting this loss to any sort of public causes consternation to well up in my chest. I am ashamed of my proclivity for Wagner. Despite my best efforts, I am not comfortable with my choice of favorite composer. To even mention him as my favorite seems wrong, but before perhaps stating the obvious, I would like to explain the origin of this taste. 

I do not come from a musical family. I do not come from a well-off family. To be blunt, I do not come from a very cultured family. I hold no embitterment towards this, as how could I? It would be unfair to do such injustice to my parents, and they provided for me in ways that weren’t musical in nature. However, this meant I gleaned all of my musical taste from my middle and high school wind ensembles. A saxophone player, the world of orchestral and especially vocal music was foreign to me, and my mediocre schools lead to a lack of any variety or depth in repertoire. There was an exception that stuck out to me in my sophomore year of high school, however. My band director passed out Lucien Cailliet’s transcription of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Lohengrin. We rehearsed, did a fair job at the concert, and put it away. The effect of this piece, however, took hold. I found in this piece my first taste of what orchestral and classical music could bring. It deepened the uncertain love of music I had at the time, and opened up the world of opera and chromaticism. In fact, the first theory paper I ever wrote was on this piece that I so treasured, and to this day it serves as a means of calming me down when I feel stressed. 

What I did not know was what this rabbit hole would lead me to. I was enamored by the music—the lush orchestration, shifting harmonies, beautiful motives, etc. What I did not pay attention to (initially) was the plot, the libretto, the context, or even the piece’s placement within Lohengrin. I found these things later, of course, but they were not a part of what attracted me in the first place. When I found other Wagner instrumental excerpts I experienced similar aesthetic delight. It was around this time that I discovered a smudge on the mental image of this music. When looking up more works by this strange German man, a biography began to appear. First, at a trickle, some of the more nefarious details of his life came to be. These were initially shallow, such as his habit for extramarital affairs and his reputation at the podium. However, at the moment, I had no cause for alarm. I knew next to nothing of music history, and he seemed at first glance as flawed as any other.

Continue reading “Wagner Guilt”

R.I.P. Christopher Rouse (1949-2019)

On September 21, 2019, the classical music world bade a sad farewell to Christopher Rouse, one of America’s most esteemed contemporary composers. Winner of numerous awards—including the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his Trombone Concerto—Rouse’s compositions reflect a vast and sophisticated musical palette, treading confidently between ear-shattering dissonances (heard in his jaw-dropping tone poem Gorgon) and sweeping neo-Romanticism (displayed in the poignant Flute Concerto).

Rouse was also an expert craftsman of musical color and composed exceptionally well for the orchestra. In the last year of my undergrad, my college orchestra programmed his Der gerettete Alberich, essentially a “fantasy” on themes of Wagner for solo percussionist and orchestra. Though the horn part was one of the most challenging I’ve yet to learn in an orchestral setting, I was struck by Rouse’s penchant for dynamic extremes and careful scoring to avoid a haphazard, “we’re playing loud for loud’s sake” feel. His novel, touching, and even humorous transformation of Wagnerian gestures—all in a non-kitschy manner—was also admirable (especially in the luminous six-part horn canon about 3/4 of the way into the piece). It was an immensely rewarding experience.

Christopher Rouse’s passing occurs—sadly—mere weeks before the world premiere of his Sixth Symphony by the Cincinnati Symphony. (The New York Philharmonic’s 2016 recording of his Third and Fourth symphonies—posted below—is absolutely stunning.) Based on the recent outpouring of reminiscences from friends, colleagues, and admirers, it is clear that Rouse and his music will be remembered and performed far into the future.