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. For August's installment, we checked in with friends in Ohio, Tennessee and Vermont, as well as the new overnight host of Classical 24, the nationally syndicated classical music service. Here are their top picks.
John Adams: I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (Warner/Rhino)
Something I'm always thinking about is the future of classical music. What is it going to sound like? What subjects will it cover? This work answers those questions for me. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky is an opera by John Adams — he calls it a "song-play." The title comes from a quote by a survivor of the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles. That catastrophe, coupled with issues of race, immigration and the police's relationship with society drive the plot of this work. If you're interested in classical music that's in the moment, and truly American, I highly recommend listening to this recording. — Garrett McQueen, host/producer, Classical 24's Music Through the Night
Although Jean Sibelius may be a classical music household name for beloved favorites like Finlandia and the Fifth Symphony, as with many prolific composers, a large portion of his oeuvre has been forgotten by history. Over the next few months, we'll be unearthing some of these classics lost to history and featuring them weekly. Sibelius' dramatic choral symphony Kullervo, based on a tale found in the Finnish Kalevala, contains as much passion and otherworldliness as his other popular works. This work, which feels like a smorgasbord of five miniature tone poems, will transport you to the rugged and ancient forests of Finland and recall tales of ancient warriors and kingdoms. The Minnesota Orchestra's heroic interpretation from 2017, led by Osmo Vänskä, is sure to thrill any lover of Sibelius. And who better to conduct such a magnificent work than one of the greatest living Finnish musicians? — Tyler Rand, social innovation manager, Classical 90.5 WSMC, Chattanooga, Tenn.
Since September is Classical Music Month, it seems an appropriate time not only to celebrate the centuries of "tried and true" classics we play on a daily basis, but also to commend classical music being created today. The just-released recording of Owain Park's choral works is a disc we look forward to sharing with our listeners. There's much here to love — ranging from the young composer's setting of "Ave Maris Stella" to his bright "The Wings of the Wind" and the ethereal "For the Fallen." The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, under Stephen Layton, performs with the technical precision and exquisite expression we've come to expect from this fine ensemble. — Jenny Northern, station manager, WCLV 104.9 ideastream (Cleveland, Ohio)
This 2016 release presents fresh, new interpretations of Stravinksy's seminal works — The Rite of Spring and The Firebird Suite (1919). Both pieces represent the music of changes: Rite has become a touchstone for new music in the 20th century, and Firebird is, of course, the story of change — life, death and rebirth. We've been thinking about change a lot at VPR Classical lately. Our original podcast Timeline has recently released a special series called Timeline: Elements. These four episodes (Fire, Water, Earth and Air) dive into music, history, art, science and philosophy. Through the stories and facts presented, Timeline: Elements seeks to break down the compartments of knowledge that separate our thinking and allow the listener to draw connections from different disciplines and time periods. We even hosted a night of lecture and live performance, inviting listeners to come and engage with these topics face to face. — James Stewart, host and producer of the podcast Timeline, Vermont Public Radio (Colchester, Vt.)