Title: Wild Blue Yonder Artist: Eleanor Alberga, Ensemble Arcadiana Label: Navona Formats: CD, Digital Release date: April 23, 2021
In unsettling times, Eleanor Alberga’s new release of contemporary
chamber music feels like an aesthetic introduction to the new normal of
discomfort, anxiety, and fleeting moments of absolute beauty. Although the
pieces on the album were composed and recorded over a twenty year period by the
Jamaican-born British composer and pianist, they are held together by a common
theme of dreams and exploring the unknown. These dreams are not necessarily
comforting, but rather an exciting journey through dream logic, full of slow
fades, abrupt changes, and constant transformations of small motives and
traditional harmonies that leave you feeling as if you are discovering a new
territory, but with vaguely familiar landmarks.
Title: dwb (driving while black) Artist: Susan Kander, Roberta Gumbel Label: Albany Formats: CD, Digital Release date: March 15, 2021
dwb (driving while black) is a chamber opera with a
few modern twists. Composer Susan
Kander and librettist/soprano Roberta Gumbel
join to tell the story of a loving Black mother who anxiously watches her son
grow. She battles with his increasing desire for independence and her fear for
his safety. Each scene features the vocalist and accompanying instruments, sung
from the perspective of the mother. Progressively, we see her interact with her
son in the car at different stages in his maturity. Interjecting the scenes are
bulletins performed by a singer, cellist, and percussionist that represent the
“dangerous world beyond the Mother’s control.”
Title: Alien Stories Artist: String Noise Label: Infrequent Seams (Dist. Bandcamp) Formats: CD, Cassette, Digital Release date: April 2, 2021
The New York-based classical
avant-punk duo String Noise, featuring violinists Conrad
Harris and Pauline Kim Harris, is celebrated for their wide-ranging
performances of contemporary music. Since the duo’s founding in 2011, they have
added more than 50 new works to their repertoire. Their latest release, Alien
Stories, was influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, which also increased
attention on issues of racial equality with the musical realm. In support of
Black artists, the duo decided to co-commission, with Carnegie Hill Concerts,
new works from five young Black composer-performers based in New York City.
These five works are featured on Alien Stories.
Great performances and recordings of their
work can go a long way in helping solidify the reputation of any composer. The
GRAMMY Award-winning Catalyst
Quartet is working to use their immense
talent to highlight chamber music by composers who may have been overlooked
because of their race or gender with a new series of recordings, titled Uncovered. Volume One, featuring early
works by Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, promises an exceptional
project, bringing the incredible playing of a top-tier string quartet to finely
The acclaimed Grammy®-nominated woodwind quintet Imani Winds have released their latest
studio album, Bruits. Composed of the talented artists Brandon Patrick
George (flute), Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe), Mark Dover (clarinet), Jeff Scott (French
horn), and Monica Ellis (bassoon), Imani Winds delivers a provocative
commentary on the issues that have, and continue to, plague our country. Elucidated
by the metaphorical title, “Bruits,” a medical term for an abnormal sound generated
by blood flow through an obstructed artery, this album utilizes three inspiring
works to describe our ongoing social and political climate, reflecting on the
turmoil and strife within our country in an effort to bring about beneficial
change before the damage becomes irreparable. Additional featured performers on
the album include Grammy® award-winning pianist Cory Smythe, Metropolitan Opera
National Council & Operalia award-winning soprano Janai Brugger, and
scholar and narrator John Whittington Franklin.
Title: The Grey Land Artist: Joseph C. Phillips Jr., Numinous, Rebecca L. Hargrove Label: New Amsterdam Formats: CD, Digital Release date: November 20, 2020
Towards the end of 2020, after a tumultuous
year of reckoning with racial injustice, Joseph C. Phillips Jr. released an
album of his stirring hour-long multimedia “monoopera,” The Grey Land. The opera traces Black sorrow after the countless
deaths of African Americans at the hand of the police through the lens of an
anonymous Black mother considering the future of her young child. Unease,
bleakness, and sorrow saturate this music, but they are balanced by moments of
calm, joy, and the beauty of everyday life, as Philips also reminds us of the
still throbbing hope of a land “where the beautiful promise of happiness,
liberty, and life may yet manifest true to finally include her family too.”
World-renowned soprano Janinah Burnett, known for her performances on Broadway as well as the Metropolitan Opera, is releasing her debut studio album, Love the Color of Your Butterfly. Classical operatic themes combine with a multitude of styles, such as jazz, blues, and spirituals, coming together to showcase both Burnett’s incredible versatility as well as the influences that shaped her into the talented and expressive musician she is today: “When the time came for me to make a body of work that represented my deepest artistic desires, I took an inventory of my musical influences and creations and came up with a concept that blended my past with my present.”
One of the most essential parts of the holiday season is the music we listen to with our family and friends. This year, we especially need to come together to celebrate (virtually or in person), so we’re offering our list of the most comforting and inspiring holiday albums that have been released over the past few months. Included are brief reviews of our top six holiday albums of 2020, including releases from Leslie Odom Jr., Warren Wolf, the original cast of Hadestown, Amber Weekes, Lynda Randle, and Pentatonix. Also included is a list of honorable mentions, since there were too many amazing albums released this holiday season to cover in depth. Although this Christmas and holiday season may be a bit different from what most of us are used to, we hope these new music selections will help make this Christmas feel just as special as the last.
London’s “young, gifted and classical” Kanneh-Mason family have joined together
with friends for a retelling of Camille Saint-Saëns classic children’s suite, Carnival of the Animals, paired with
Michael Morpurgo’s Grandpa Christmas.
Performers include the four oldest family members who currently study at the
Royal Academy of Music—pianist Isata,
cellist Sheku, and
violinists Braimah and Konya—with their younger siblings including 18-year-old pianist
Jeneba, 15-year-old violinist Aminata, and 11-year-old cellist Mariatu.
Recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, this album marks the first
release to feature all seven of the famous siblings performing together.
The Heart of a Woman is the first full-length biography on Florence B. Price, the renowned African American composer. Based on Dr. Rae Linda Brown’s 1987 Ph.D. dissertation on Price, the author sadly did not live to see her expanded book published before succumbing to cancer in 2017.
Dolce, featuring cellist Kristen Yeon-Ji Yun
and pianist Phoenix Park-Kim, has assembled a satisfying collection of pieces
by composers of African descent on their recent release, Summerland.
This album is a follow up to Deep River:
Music for Violin and Piano by Composers of African Descent, released by
Park-Kim and violinist Merwin Siu in 2016. Most of the pieces chosen for Summerland
reflect the lyrical side of classical music, with winding, twisting harmonies
and long, sustained melodies.
Whether intentional or not, Naxos
picked an opportune time to release this recording featuring works by two very
prominent 20th century African American composers—William Levi
Dawson (1899-1990) and his somewhat younger contemporary, Ulysses Simpson Kay
(1917-1995). As a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, at least a portion
of white America is finally addressing gaps in their knowledge of Black history,
having come of age at a time when the historical narrative and education system
was (and is) unquestionably white-washed. At the same time, many university
music departments and libraries have begun the process of re-examining the Western
classical music canon in an attempt to decolonize syllabi and collections. This
new release on Naxos American Classics series is certainly a very
welcome addition to those efforts. Though most of these works have been released
commercially in the past, the most recent of these recordings was issued nearly
20 years ago.
Title: EarthSeed Artist: Nicole Mitchell & Lisa E. Harris Label: FPE Format: CD, LP, Digital Release Date: June 26, 2020
They say that great minds think alike, and that seems
to be the case with the new collaborative album between renowned composers Nicole Mitchell
and Lisa E. Harris.
The pair met at the New Quorum Composers’ Residency in New Orleans and were
drawn together by a shared interest in celebrated author Octavia E. Butler, one
of the best known African American writers in science fiction. Together, the
two musicians took inspiration from Butler’s legacy of Afrofuturistic novels to
Title: Some of These Days Artist: Lara Downes & Friends Label: Flipside Music Formats: CD, Digital Release date: April 3, 2020
If there were ever an album that captured in music the interconnected nature of the fight for justice across generations, it is pianist and activist Lara Downes’ Some of These Days. Blurring genres, varying instrumentation, and collaborating with other musicians, Downes brings us an album that, track after track, delivers deeply moving and heartfelt performances of spirituals and freedom songs. First conceived in antebellum times as multilayered expressions of sorrow, longing, and joy—psychological coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma of slavery—these songs took on still new meanings when sung one hundred years later by Civil Rights activists, including her Harlem-born African American father and Jewish mother. And evident through Downes, these songs are still speaking to us today.
Urban Counterpoint: The Piano Music of Ed Bland is the second release of the music of the late Chicago composer Ed Bland by Cambria Master Recordings. Bland’s instrumental compositions were the focus of an earlier album, Urban Classical: The Music of Ed Bland (1994). However, the focus of Urban Counterpoint is on Bland’s piano works. Performed and interpreted by pianist Judith Olson, the album explores his genre-blending compositions which incorporate “a broad range of textures and diverse rhythms” from the early 20th-century Western European music canon as well as jazz, gospel, and West African rhythms.
Paul Moravec’s 2017
oratorio, Sanctuary Road, is a
modern take on the classical oratorio form, portraying stories from the
Underground Railroad rather than Biblical content. The libretto by Mark
Campbell interprets slave narratives collected and published in 1872 in The Underground Railroadby William Still (1821–1902) of Philadelphia, a “conductor” who aided many
fugitive slaves including his older brother. Some of the song texts are
literal, as when Still interviews an escapee he has sheltered, but at other
times more poetic, consisting of single words or phrases joined together to
portray the collective experience of the enslaved who escaped to
freedom. The oratorio’s title, however, was inspired
by the modern concept of “Sanctuary City,” bringing contemporary resonance to
the composition. The sixteen movement work for five soloists, chorus and
orchestra was commissioned by Jody Spellun, a member
of the Oratorio Society
of New York, and this live recording captures the
world premiere performance at Carnegie Hall by the OSNY Chorus and Orchestra
under the baton of Kent Tritle.
The songs and spoken excerpts that comprise Bound for the Promised Land: Songs and Words of Equality and Freedom were performed live during the Atlanta Music Festival in 2016 at Ebenezer Baptist Church and Glenn Memorial Auditorium at Emory University. The Atlanta Music Festival was first created in 1910 after the Atlanta Race Riots and revived in 2001 by Pastor Dwight Andrews. The purpose of the festival at its inception was to introduce the world to renowned African American concert musicians. The music featured on Bound for the Promised Land does not disappoint and holds true to the original mission of the festival, with works by Dorothy Rudd Moore, T. J. Anderson, Duke Ellington, John Carter and Adolphus Hailstork. Guest artists include the late soprano Jessye Norman, who performs on four songs, tenor Timothy B. Miller, and narrators Taylor Branch and Rev. Robert M. Franklin, Jr.
Title: Spark Catchers Artist: Chineke! Orchestra & Chorus Label: NMC Formats: CD, Digital Release date: January 17, 2020
Royal Academy of Music professor and double
bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku
has a laudable mission: championing change and celebrating diversity in
classical music. Through her Chineke!
Foundation, Nwanoku nurtures new
generations of talent by commissioning works and supporting music education
programs including a youth orchestra. Her flagship group, the Chineke! Orchestra, was founded in 2015 and is comprised of Black and Minority Ethnic
(BME) classical musicians working in the UK and Europe. The orchestra recently
won the inaugural Royal Philharmonic Society
for filling the stage with BME artists, drawing a far more diverse audience to
concert halls, and “restoring BME composers past and present to their rightful
place amongst those we regularly revere.” These achievements are showcased on
the Chineke! Orchestra’s latest album, Spark Catchers. Featuring works by six of the UK’s
leading BME composers, the performances (except where otherwise noted) are led
by African American conductor Anthony Parnther, music director of the
Southeast Symphony in Los Angeles and the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra.
Title: Elgar Artist: Sheku Kanneh-Mason, London Symphony Orchestra Label: Decca Classics Formats: CD, LP, Digital Release date: January 10, 2020
London-born cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason rose to prominence in the UK after winning the BBC Young Musician Award in 2016 and received international attention for his performance at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018. A member of the remarkably talented Kanneh-Mason family, 20-year-old Sheku has often performed with his six brothers and sisters, all classically trained musicians between the ages of 10-23. His debut album,Inspiration, was released in 2016 on the prestigious Decca Classics label (his sister, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, is also signed to Decca). On his sophomore album, Elgar, Sheku performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85 with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, plus several short chamber pieces by Elgar and other composers. As a testament to the number of people inspired by the young musician, Elgar is already a best seller, making Kanneh-Mason the first classical musician to break into the Top 10 of the UK album charts in over 30 years, a position currently shared with grime star Stormzy.
American soprano Katherine Jolly has graced many opera stages over the course of her budding career. After winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finale in 2006, she went on to perform with the New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Florida Grand Opera, among others. In concert repertoire, Jolly has taken the route of many lyric sopranos, specializing in the repertoire of Bach, Handel and Mozart. On her debut recording Preach Sister Preach, however, she selected three contemporary works by young American composers. The project was undertaken while Jolly was on the voice faculty at the IU Jacobs School of Music (JSOM), and was recorded on the stage of Auer Hall in 2018 and early 2019 by audio engineer D. James Tagg, who is also on the JSOM faculty.Continue reading →
Title: The String Queens
Artist: The String Queens
Release date: November 25, 2019
Renowned for their genre spanning repertoire, the Washington, D.C. based trio The String Queens have been changing the ways audiences engage with classical music. The three women—Kendall Isadore (violin), Dawn Johnson (viola), and Élise Cuffy (cello)—are “school teachers by day and concert performers by night” who have a strong commitment to artistic integrity and music education. Though they might not yet be a household name, you have likely heard TSQ backing artists such as Solange, Janelle Monae, and Jennifer Hudson, as well as Aloe Blacc on his recent video of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” filmed on the grounds of Monticello. The trio has also been featured on concert stages around the world, including Carnegie Hall, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Royal Festival Hall, and Shanghai Grand Theatre.Continue reading →
The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs, featuring music of composer Margaret Bonds, is a much needed album that will play an important role in bringing Bonds the wider recognition she deserves. A number of renowned artists, stretching from the present day back to Bonds’ lifetime, have recorded Bonds’ shorter compositions including her art songs and spiritual settings, as well as her sole published piece for solo piano, “Troubled Water.” But this performance by The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra—with soprano Laquita Mitchell, mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford, tenor Noah Stewart, and conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather—iis the world-premiere recording of not only The Ballad of the Brown King, but of any large-scale composition by Bonds, as most remain unpublished, much less professionally recorded.
Coinciding with the 2019-20 season’s acclaimed opening production of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and the exhibition Black Voices at the Met, the Metropolitan Opera offers a third blockbuster with Black Voices Rise: African American Artists at the Met. This compilation of performances by Black artists from 1955 to 1985 celebrates the talent and “overdue arrival” of these history-making singers. The album opens with a performance by Marian Anderson, who broke the Met’s color barrier with her debut in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera in 1955. Other featured performers include celebrated stars Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Kathleen Battle, George Shirley, and Jessye Norman, among others. Black Voices Rise also includes rare excerpts from the Met’s 1985 company-premiere of Porgy and Bess starring Simon Estes and Roberta Alexander. The extensive liner notes by Dr. Maurice Wheeler include a brief history of African American performers at the Metropolitan Opera and the struggle for racial equality, as well as biographies of the singers included in the compilation. All recordings were restored and remastered from the original analog tapes, allowing these voices to triumph yet again.Continue reading →
When Gabriel Prokofiev called Branford Marsalis to see if he had any thoughts on the new saxophone concerto he was about to compose, Branford had one request: “make it melodic.” So Prokofiev took it upon himself to write, as he says, “a classical concerto,” but one that combines his love of jazz with classical elements in a harmonious and syncretic way.Continue reading →
Artist: Devonté Hynes & Third Coast Percussion
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: October 11, 2019
Devonté Hynes, perhaps better known as R&B artist Blood Orange, has covered a lot of musical ground in his career. He recently released his fifth album, Angel’s Pulse, under his Blood Orange persona, and he previously produced indie rock music under the name Lightspeed Champion. Many of Dev’s fans might be unaware, however, of his love of classical music and his 2018 debut at the Kennedy Center as one of four pianists performing Philip Glass’s 20 Etudes. Now, with the release of Fields, featuring Hynes collaboration with the Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion, he makes his recording debut as a composer in the classical music world.Continue reading →
Decca Classics has released a remarkable collaboration between Grammy-winning jazz composer Wynton Marsalis and violin virtuoso Nicola Benedetti. Marsalis’s Violin Concerto in D and his Fiddle Dance Suite for solo violin were recently recorded by Benedetti, the former performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Cristian Mǎcelaru. These two works represent new heights in Marsalis’s compositional style as he deftly mixes classical music with other idioms.Continue reading →
The Mask in the Mirror, a three-act chamber opera from composer and pianist Richard Thompson, portrays turmoil and tragedy in this dramatization of the courtship and marriage of renowned African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) and author Alice Ruth Moore (1875-1935). Conducted by Stephen Tucker, The Sanaa Opera Project released a recording of The Mask in the Mirror earlier this year. Featuring tenor Cameo Humes in the role of Paul and soprano Angela Owens as Alice, with mezzo-soprano Lindsay Patterson Abdou in several supporting familial roles, The Mask in the Mirror balances man against woman, jazz against classical composition, and society against self in a rise of tension that resolves only with end of their relationship and Paul’s subsequent surrender to tuberculosis.Continue reading →
Jamaican-born British composer Eleanor Alberga has received more attention in the past few years since her piece, Arise, Athena!, opened the final concert of the BBC Proms in 2015. This recording of her string quartets highlights some earlier compositions, in which her modernist sensibilities are at the fore. Alberga utilizes many compositional tools in her vast toolbox to bring drama to three very different works, all composed within an eight-year period from 1993-2001. Working in a combination of modernist and postmodern idioms, Alberga has not forgotten harmonic tension and release and plenty of repetition; this is not to say that her music is conservative, but that it is refreshingly expressive and has an engaging sense of narrative and rhythmic drive, honed from her training as a composer for modern dance. Continue reading →
Title: Black Swans
Release date: August 23, 2019
As many readers are no doubt aware, Black Swan was the first major record label in the country to be owned and run by African Americans for the exclusive promotion of Black artists. Founded in 1921 during the Harlem Renaissance by publisher Harry Pace, the company also involved other luminaries: a young Fletcher Henderson served as recording director and de facto accompanist, William Grant Still was hired as composer/arranger, and W.E.B. DuBois was an early investor. At a time when white-owned labels were developing “race” series and limiting Black artists to recording blues, jazz, and gospel music, Black Swan expanded its catalog to include classical singers and instrumentalists, documenting the performance practices of a phenomenal group of concert artists. Now, almost 100 years later, Black Swan classical 78s are very rare and most have neverbeen reissued! This groundbreaking new compilation, Black Swans, includes the first recordings of black classical artists from the label’s short-lived 7100 operatic series, in addition to other rarities.Continue reading →