Welcome to Major Themes, a monthly feature in which classical music experts recommend a must-hear recording based on what's happening at classical stations and programs around the country. This month, we checked in with friends in Michigan, Tennessee, Vermont and California, and the national program Pipedreams. Here are their picks, with an emphasis on Women's History Month, piano, birthdays and vocal music.
Jakub Józef Orlinski: Anima Sacra (Erato)
At certain times of the year, I let chance, or serendipity, take an outsized role in my life, because I just can't stay on top of my to-do list. That includes tasks like listening to new releases before putting them on my show. So one day I ripped the plastic off of this CD, and played Track 1, fingers crossed. What happened next? I couldn't stop it. I played tracks 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, and it was the best show ever. You will hear a voice, a counter-tenor, so supple and phrase-loving, without a hint of hooting, singing in a language you don't understand (unless you speak Latin). But never mind, the humanity of the performance is what lifts the soul. The lack of straining. The pure release of beauty. It had to continue. There was a complete world on that recording, and I wanted to stay there forever. Cara Lieurance, producer and host of Let's Hear It, WMUK (Kalamazoo, Mich.)
LISTEN Fago: Il Faraone sommerso - 'Alla gente a Dio diletta'
The Crossing and International Contemporary Ensemble: Seven Responses (Innova)
Knoxville's Big Ears festival is a world-renowned celebration of avant garde music, film and art that takes place over the last weekend in March. Steve Reich, Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet are just a few of the festival's past artists-in-residence. The music department at WUOT spends much of March preparing music lovers in Knoxville for the event by interviewing and featuring recordings by visiting artists. This year, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) will perform works by four contemporary female composers. One of my favorite recordings by ICE is Seven Responses, its collaboration with the Grammy-winning choral ensemble the Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally. This album, inspired by Buxtehude's oratorio Membra Jesu Nostri, explores seven composers' responses to suffering and joy. Melony Dodson, senior classical host and producer, WUOT (Knoxville, Tenn.)
LISTEN Shaw: To the Hands - No. 2, In Medio
Maurizio Pollini: Chopin Nocturnes (DG)
Since their birthdays bookend the month, VPR Classical has devoted all of March to the music of Chopin and J.S. Bach. In February, we hosted a concert with local pianist Paul Orgel called "Alchemy of Genius." He paired Bach's preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II with Nocturnes, by Chopin. We are featuring one of these pairings each week on the air along with fresh episodes of our music history podcast Timeline exploring the lives of these two important composers. We have made all of the recordings from our "Alchemy of Genius" concert available on our website. James Stewart, classical host and producer, Vermont Public Radio (Colchester, Vt.)
LISTEN Chopin: Nocturne No. 8
Choir of King's College: The Music of King's - Choral Favourites From Cambridge (King's College)
Concurrent with its upcoming U.S. visit (St. Paul, Minn.; Washington, D.C.; and New York City), the estimable Choir of King's College, Cambridge, has released a CD of choral favorites. I delight in the span of repertoire covered here, from Palestrina (circa 1588) to Stephen Paulus (2001), six centuries that remind us of how old this choir is and what a marvelous tradition it has maintained and fostered through so many years. Since 1997, I've been honored and humbled to be able to add my introductions to its Christmas Eve broadcasts in the United States, and remember my first visit to the King's College Chapel in England during a summer adventure abroad only a few years into my now half-century-long MPR tenure. Everything one imagines about that ancient space is true, its remarkably clear acoustics, ravishing stained-glass windows, the mind-boggling expanse of fan-vaulting in the ceiling. The building itself makes the heart sing, even when the choir is absent. The choir is, of course, in perpetual motion; young choristers and choral scholars come and go with the passing years, as voices break or diplomas are earned. But Stephen Cleobury has made a "whole" of this ever-changing resource during the past 37 years, and done so brilliantly. On this new album, he leads his singers in psalms of praise, Passiontide laments, and prayers for peace and protection, each a meditation on the meaning of life and a reflection of the power of music music not just for (or from) "Kings," but for each and every one of us. Amen! Michael Barone, host and producer, Pipedreams (American Public Media)
LISTEN Choir of King's College: Panis Angelicus
Lara Downes: Holes in the Sky (Portrait)
Women's History Month is upon us, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate than with the new album by Sacramento-based pianist Lara Downes. Holes in the Sky comprises 22 tracks, all of which are composed by women. Eclectic collaborations abound, as well, including icons such as Judy Collins, Grammy winner and 2017 MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens, and classical superstars Simone Dinnerstein and Rachel Barton Pine. One world premiere recording, Jennifer Higdon's Notes of Gratitude, opens with Downes plucking inside the piano. The plucking's percussive and restrained nature eventually gives way to an outpouring of emotion via the piano "proper." The six-minute piece is replete with unconventional harmonies and juxtaposes a rhapsodic musical structure, continuing that feeling of resistance vs. release. Downes fully explores the range of the keyboard within Higdon's confines, making for an immersive and lush listening experience. Kevin Doherty, Morning Classical host and classical content coordinator, Capital Public Radio (Sacramento, Calif.)
LISTEN Hidgon: Notes of Gratitude