Forget about dead white guys for the moment: Classical music isn’t just what was written centuries ago, and it’s definitely not all in the past. Let’s pay tribute to the creative imagination of composers at work today — all of them are very much alive and pushing the boundaries of musical expression.
American composer John Adams, probably the best-known figure here, does exactly that in Absolute Jest, a concerto for string quartet and orchestra originally written for the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. Slicing and dicing motifs from Beethoven, Adams takes their DNA and recombines it into something exhilaratingly new.
The year’s list of great discoveries also takes you across a variety of musical terrains. Try out Ilimaq, the latest soundscape from the environmentally conscious John Luther Adams (his Become Ocean moved Taylor Swift to donate to the Seattle Symphony, the orchestra that commissioned the piece).
Enjoy a meditative evocation of Iceland by Anna Thorvaldsdottír from her remarkable album In the Light of Air, conceived as an installation for the International Contemporary Ensemble. Set sail to ancient Greece with the ambient, mysterious musical ritual evoked on “Antigone in Syntagma Square” from Xáos, a new collaborative project by the Greek musician/painter Ahetas and Dubulah (aka Nick Page).
Bang on a Can maverick Julia Wolfe nabbed the Pulitzer Prize for her marvelous oratorio Anthracite Fields, a brave musical exploration of labor history — in this case, the life of coal miners at the turn of the 20th century.
Some unknown composers made their mark this year. Eric Nathan’s debut, Multitude, Solitude, is a collection of solo works and pieces for small ensemble; the album’s title was inspired by the writing of French renegade poet Charles Baudelaire.
The youngest composer to have an entire album devoted to his music on the ultra-prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, New York City-based Mohammed Fairouz, 30, is currently at work on multiple large-scale opera commissions. His Follow, Poet features a title piece that is a vivid setting of W.H. Auden’s elegy “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” with the expressive mezzo of Kate Lindsey.
Another vocal selection is the mind-bendingly beautiful “Vesper Sparrow” by Missy Mazzoli — a blend of her impressions of birdsong and the singular folk song style of Sardinia. This piece gracefully opens Render, the latest release from vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. Brooklyn-based Mazzoli has also written an opera about the Swiss explorer and writer Isabelle Eberhardt and is currently at work on another opera based on the Lars von Trier film Breaking the Waves.
The prolific Judd Greenstein’s bright, spirited City Boy endows Dreamfall (the new album from New York City’s NOW Ensemble) with a lyrical conclusion. With its interface of chamber ensemble and solo guitar, it musically mimics the sensations of joyous curiosity.
Another contemporary classical release of note is the dreamy sound world Bryce Dessner conjures on Music for Woods and Strings, his suite for Sō Percussion commissioned by Carnegie Hall. Known as the guitarist for The National, Dessner has taken his cue from American folk songs, inventively retooling them for a new tailor-made instrument called a “chord stick” that evokes the traditional hammered dulcimer.