Favorite Albums of 2022

Favorite Albums of 2022

Well folks, we made it. Another year in the books. 2022 was, for the most part, a seemingly normal year (whatever “normal” may mean these days). Besides the start of a senseless war in Ukraine, a contentious election season, climate change worries, and other tensions and tragedies at home and abroad, many of our activities have largely returned to how they were pre-spring 2020. It seems that, finally, the worst of the pandemic is behind us. (At least, one can hope. *Knock on wood.*) Personally, I have a lot to be thankful for this year. I finished my dissertation, graduated with a PhD in musicology, and got the chance to travel to London and the East Coast/Midwest. There were some low points, too. A mild bout of COVID (after successfully dodging it for 2.5 years) and a so-far-unsuccessful job search cast a bit of a cloud over the final months of the year, but all things considered, I’d give 2022 an enthusiastic two-thumbs up.

Goodbye, 2022! You were aight.

Classical music also experienced something of a renaissance this year, and the recording realm captured some incredible artistry and fantastic music. There’s lots to love: vivacious viola music from an underrated Baroque composer, a stunning Christmas oratorio, the soundtrack from a mind-bending new streaming series, the list goes on. Vocal music made quite a showing, in particular, with many intimate recordings that probe the depths of the human experience, particularly those of underrepresented communities.

Below are ten of my favorite recordings from this past year and five honorable mentions. As I say every year, Spotify and Apple Music are great for their convenience, but streaming royalties are generally atrocious. By all means, feel free to stream and enjoy the albums below, but if a particular one strikes you, please consider purchasing it as a digital or physical copy. Outlets like Bandcamp are especially great options for this, as most of the proceeds go directly to the artists.

Alright, let’s begin. In no particular order…

J’Nai Bridges, Will Liverman, Paul Sánchez, Leonardo Altino & Caen Thomason-Redus – Shawn E. Okpebholo: Lord, How Come Me Here? – Spirituals, Folk Hymns, and Art Song Reimagined (Navona Records)

The African American spiritual is perhaps the most miraculous genre of American music. Though a by-product of slavery—an abhorrent scar on our nation’s history—these songs encapsulate a stunning range of human expression in the face of shocking injustice, from grief and anger to joy and hope. Lord, How Come Me Here? presents a new look into this rich repertoire, featuring several spirituals and folk hymns arranged by the young American composer Shawn E. Okpebholo. Okpebholo is a remarkably-gifted arranger; his harmonic palette is broad and luminous, yet sensitive, and the results are breathtaking. This album tag-teams between the voices of two extraordinary singers—mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and baritone Will Liverman—with amicable accompaniment from pianist Paul Sánchez. (Cellist Leonardo Altino and flutist Caen Thomason-Redus also appear in two separate tracks, which add an extra dash of color.) Rounding out the album is Two Black Churches, an original composition by Okpebholo that offers a striking reflection on two separate tragedies—the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 and the mass shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in 2015. “How much has changed?” asks Okpebholo in the liner notes. Clearly, we have a long way to go as a nation. We would do well to listen to this music, learn from our history, and work towards a brighter, more just future.

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A Playlist for Christmas

A Playlist for Christmas

Another holiday season is upon us, and with that comes a wealth of season-appropriate music. (Some good and some not so good. Here’s looking at you, Bob Dylan, and your Christmas album. Yikes.) The sacred realm, in particular, contains an absolute treasure trove of works that honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus. So much of this music has played an indispensable role in my life, and the season is not complete until I’ve given at least one listen to John Adams’s El Niño and Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, to name just two pieces.

To celebrate this time of year, me and my good friend/fellow music nerd, Geoff Nelson, have culled together a playlist that journeys through the story of Christmas, beginning with the longings of Advent and ending with hope for the new year. As with our Holy Week playlist this past March, our selections encompass a broad spectrum of styles and sounds, often wandering between them in unique and surprising ways. (Who knew that Palestrina and The Oh Hellos actually work really well together?) The playlist can also be approached in different ways. Since it is 31 tracks long, it can either be used as a sort of musical “Advent calendar” (i.e., listening to one track each day throughout the 31 days of December), or it can be consumed in a single sitting.

No matter how you approach it—and no matter your faith background—we sincerely hope that our musical selections will inspire reflection, hope, and joy as the world celebrates this holiday season.

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Reflections on the Aspen Music Festival and School’s 2021 Season

Reflections on the Aspen Music Festival and School’s 2021 Season

As Joni Mitchell so aptly put it in her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi,” you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. If the pandemic (and the year 2020 in general) has taught us anything, it’s that very lesson. Though the year was abysmal for numerous reasons, for many people—myself included—the gradual cancelation and ultimate absence of live music was one of the more disappointing casualties of that raging dumpster fire. As the months dragged by, I couldn’t wait to sit in a darkened concert hall once again and even surmised what the experience might look like in a post-COVID world.

The cover of our 2021 program book. The lovely artwork is by the Aspen-based artist Isa Catto.

Although we’re not in a post-COVID world quite yet, live music has once again become a reality. (At least, for now… PLEASE get vaccinated, people!!!) Because of this, I recently had the opportunity to spend a third summer working as the Assistant Program Book Editor at the Aspen Music Festival and School. While program book and various other work responsibilities took up a sizable portion of time—i.e., lots of proofreading—I was still able to attend several concerts during the Festival’s eight-week season. This was, in a word, wonderful. After spending well over a year getting my music fix from live streams and Spotify, it was so, so refreshing to hear in-person concerts again (and in the gorgeous mountaintop setting of Aspen at that). Though concert protocols looked a bit different than normal years—mask-wearing, distanced seating, etc.—it was nonetheless a memorable summer filled with some incredible performances.

I’ve always wanted to do some sort of post-season wrap-up of my summers at the Festival, but the looming responsibilities of grad school always (rudely) got in the way. Well, since I’m now solely writing my dissertation—not that this isn’t a looming responsibility in itself!—and don’t have to worry about classes, I thought this would be the perfect year to compile some thoughts on Aspen’s 2021 season. That said, here are a few of my favorite concerts and performance highlights from the summer:

Favorite discovery: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s String Quartet in E-flat major

While the music of Felix Mendelssohn is justly celebrated, it has too often eclipsed the output of his just-as-talented sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. This is slowly starting to change, though, as musicians begin to grant Hensel a rightful place in the spotlight. One such case occurred at a recital presented this summer by the Pacifica Quartet. Alongside quartets by Florence Price and Sergei Prokofiev (both marvelous works), the program featured Hensel’s sole String Quartet in E-flat. I only became aware of Hensel’s output several years ago, but this piece eluded my radar for some reason. Hearing it for the first time at this concert was a delicious surprise—it’s a brilliant work packed with craft, lush beauty, and charming wit. My favorite moment: in the second movement, Hensel throws in a short fugato as if to say to her nineteenth-century haters, “Oh, so you think women composers can’t write counterpoint? Well, how does it feel to be WRONG?” (There’s also a fiendishly difficult cello part in this movement that actually made me chuckle out loud.) A truly wonderful discovery.

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