New Classical Tracks: The Best of 2010

New York Polyphony
Minnesota Public Radio

By Valerie Kahler

Happy New Year from American Public Media's New Classical Tracks, brought to you each week by Julie Amacher... and sometimes by me, Valerie Kahler. Here's our annual look back at the year's new releases.

Our favorites this year, as usual, are far flung in terms of styles, eras, and type of ensemble. We'll hear from singing horn players, velvet-voiced musical archeologists, a new crop of professional musicians, and take a closer look at a modern American composer.

"Discovery" is a major motivator for conductor JoAnn Falletta, who has made it sort of a personal crusade to champion the music of lesser-known composers. One of the latest beneficiaries of the Falletta spotlight is Jack Gallagher, who teaches at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Falletta's CD featuring orchestral music by Gallagher was one of Julie's top picks from 2010.

She was especially drawn to the "Berceuse," which started life as an actual, much simpler lullaby.and then blossomed into a lyrical work for small orchestra. A gently rocking rhythm establishes the mood, while the plangent strains of the clarinet seem to be drifting in from another room, in another time. This is music full of sweetness and nostalgia.perhaps the soundtrack that might play in your head as you stand in the doorway of your baby's empty room the day after you send her off to college.

Musicians just out of college are the stars of another of this year's favorite CDs. Poland's Minister of Culture and National Heritage was tired of seeing entire classes of top-notch musicians leave Poland, or take non-musical jobs. So he established Sinfonia Iuventus. It's a gathering of the best graduates of academies throughout Poland. This is a place for extremely talented individuals to further hone their ensemble skills, to face the pressures of full-time music making, and to explore serious orchestral literature.

My favorite from the disc is the Duet Concertino by Richard Strauss, an intimate ensemble piece with two distinct voices: "princess" and "bear." The bear is, of course, really a prince under a curse. The clarinet plays the part of the princess, while the bassoon represents the prince-and things are finally set to rights when the two dance together, at last mingling their voices in a sweet duet.

A new release from a sweet quartet knocked me out as well. The four men of New York Polyphony use their voices carefully and exquisitely, often eliminating vibrato completely. That "straight tone" is used to remarkable effect.

It allows you to hear the single line of a chant as each note echoes in the hall and plays against its neighbors, creating a series of ephemeral duets and trios. That straight tone carries through actual polyphonic (multiple voice) harmonies as well, as they are pulled and stretched into almost architectural forms.somehow ethereal and substantial at the same time. One eye-popping aside from the liner notes tells us that the manuscripts for several of these pieces had been lost for centuries, and were found only by chance - having been hidden in plain sight as book-binding material!

Re-purposed music of a different sort featured prominently in another of Julie's favorites this year. A Mozart composition, originally for horn and 4 strings, sounds right at home in its new setting for horn, violin, and piano.

Horn player Jeff Nelsen said that he loves this transcription, and particularly enjoys the liberties he takes in the horn cadenzas. He says you can hear a little Richard Strauss, and a little Mozart opera. Listen for a bit Magic Flute here and there - including a tip of the hat to the Queen of the Night. Quoting an aria isn't really such a big stretch according to Nelsen, who says he is singing into his instrument as he plays. I think Mozart would love these flights of fancy.

Those were just four favorites from the Class of 2010. If you'd like a complete list of CDs featured in New Classical Tracks this year, click here.

JoAnn Falletta & London Symphony Orchestra: Jack Gallagher Orchestral Music (Naxos 559652)
Sinfonia Iuventas: Debussy/Strauss/Francaix (CD Accord 162)
New York Polyphony: Tudor City (Avie 2186)
Nelsen, Bae, Kudo: Brahms & Mozart (Opening Day 7384)