Two pianists who recently caught my attention with new releases devoted exclusively to American music composed within the last quarter century are Nicholas Phillips and Mary Kathleen Ernst. All in all, 17 composers are represented on these discs, showing that the instrument that once was a mainstay in households all across the land still has a home in the 21st century.
Before his 18th birthday, Aaron Parks had released four CDs. After a five-year stint with Terence Blanchard and now 30, he participates in a wide array of musical endeavors, from his own polyglot material to guesting on an indie-rock album and collaborating with Korean-born vocalist Yeahwon Shin. In everything he does, he is fully present.
Become Ocean by John Luther Adams has been awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The work, premiered on June 20, 2013 by the Seattle Symphony, was described in the citation as “a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.”
Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919) is the last surviving member of a major group of mid-20th century American composers. He was a protégé of Aaron Copland, Randall Thompson, and Luigi Dallapiccola, and a personal friend of Irving Fine, Lukas Foss, and Pablo Neruda, among others. He also founded the Latin American Music Center. His is an important story in the annals of American music.
The music of Chicago-based Janice Misurell-Mitchell seamlessly weaves elements from high modernism with jazz, Latin, blues, and even funk into an amalgam that is completely its own thing. Vanishing Points, the second retrospective disc of her music, collects six of her chamber music compositions spanning four decades.
Part of why Marc Neikrug’s compositions have attracted the attention of so many high-profile soloists is that for many years he was a member of that exclusive club himself—a concert pianist who performed standard repertoire with Pinchas Zukerman in most of the world’s major concert halls. Yet for that reason his music hasn’t always been immediately embraced by the new music community. But he’s perfectly O.K. with that.
Like many music makers of her generation, Kamala Sankaram creates and performs work which is an amalgamation of a wide range of musical traditions. But at the root of everything she does, there is usually a strong sense of narrative. Most recently, she took on the most vaunted form of “dramma per musica”—opera—with Thumbprint, which was one of the highlights of the 2014 Prototype Festival.
Though lip service (if not actual airtime) is given to a whole host of musical traditions from Tejano to bluegrass to opera, Album of the Year and Record of the Year (for a single) are still the most important Grammy awards and are inevitably given to commercial popular music, making all the other awards somehow feel like consolation prizes.