All year long, classical music host Julie Amacher combs through piles and piles of new releases, picking out just one a week on which to shine the spotlight. Every once in a while, I get to fill in for her. This week's show is a look back at some of our favorites.
One of Julie's favorites is the latest Beethoven recording from the Minnesota Orchestra. Osmo Vanska was skeptical when his record label asked him to record the complete Beethoven symphonic cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra. There are more than 200 recordings out there already. But Vanska loves Beethoven, and after he gave the matter a lot of thought, he decided he did have something fresh to say. Critics agreed, and a series of rave reviews followed this CD's release.
Julie was particularly fond of the interpretation of Beethoven's Sixth, the Pastoral Symphony.
"Under the baton of Osmo Vanska, the Minnesota Orchestra turns this movement into a nature ballet," Julie wrote. "The woodwinds twitter like birds, as the melody wells up through the orchestra like a bubbling brook."
"The second movement is a 'Scene by the Brook.' This beautiful piece is a sanctuary of sound," Julie wrote. "Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra play this exquisite movement prayerfully. The woodwinds flutter elegantly through the birdsongs. The strings float in unison creating a buoyant yet thoughtful mood. Truth be told, this is my favorite part of the entire recording."
Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra are putting their own stamp on these great symphonies. This new recording in the Minnesota Orchestra's Beethoven cycle has staying power.
More Beethoven caught Julie's ear in 2008, with violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who shows off her investigative chops in her latest release, a CD pairing concertos by Beethoven and Franz Clement, the violinist who premiered Beethoven's concerto.
Clement's concerto, written a year earlier, was undoubtedly influential on Beethoven -- so much so that when Rachel Barton Pine and the Royal Philharmonic were rehearsing, they kept saying to themselves, "Man, it sounds like Clement is ripping off Beethoven," and they'd have to keep reminding themselves that it was the opposite.
It's always interesting to hear how composers and performers influence each other, and continually recreate. My favorite picks of 2008 both spotlight the artists' ability to take what's familiar, turn it on its ear, and make something new.
"There is something about the 'melting pot' that is America that has inspired an explosion of original musical styles," said Erika Nickrenz, pianist for Eroica Trio.
In a new release called "An American Journey," she and the rest of her band, violinist Susie Park and cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio, offer a sampler platter of unmistakably American fare.
For example, Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" is a microcosm of everything that's great and awful about the melting pot -- the vibrancy of imported customs and cultures and colors; the generations of mistrust and suspicion; the violence that springs from fear; the power of love to bridge these gaps.
The Eroica Trio pays tribute to that spirit with vibrant performances of music from Bernstein, Gershwin, and Mark O'Connor. An American Journey.
My last pick of the year was, for me, a surprise. I'm not a fan of the crossover. But the continuing evolution of music relies on re-imagining what's been done before. Sometimes it works, and sometimes, it doesn't.
The King's Singers and Billy Joel, Steven Stills, Simon & Garfunkel? Totally works. And if you don't believe me, just ask the Grammy committee. The King's Singers' "Simple Gifts" earned a nomination for Best Crossover Recording this year.
Ultimately, the appeal of any album lies in the talent and vision of the performers, and the strength of the compositions themselves. From that perspective, 2008 was a very rich year.