Although getting a Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition doesnâ€™t quite have the prestige (or immediate cash reward) of a Pulitzer Prize, winning (and even being nominated) can be quite a boost for a composer in raising name recognition and in generating commissions. These are my personal, unexpurgated opinions -- including my predictions and preferences -- about this year's nominees.
This must be the year of the concerto, since three of the pieces feature a soloist and orchestra. Joan Albert AmargÃ³sâ€™ Northern Concerto, for recorder and orchestra (the only work not by an American composer), is a dynamic accessible, ingratiating piece. Each of its three movements has a strong character, and the writing for recorder is remarkably expressive. Itâ€™s a strong, attractive work, but â€¦ it doesnâ€™t seem like a major work.
Northern Concerto: Allegro giusto (Michala Petri)
David Cheskyâ€™s Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra, part of his â€œUrban Concertosâ€ series, is notable for its brilliant orchestration and rhythmic urgency. Itâ€™s a real showcase for the soloist, and itâ€™s full of activity, but itâ€™s short on musical substance. Cheskyâ€™s gratuitous quotations of the bassoon solo that opens The Rite of Spring sound gimmicky and shallow. It just doesnâ€™t seem to be in the same league as the other nominees.
Concerto for Bassoon: Movement one (Martin Kuuskmann)
Jennifer Higdon is a rising star in the world of new music, and with a performance by eighth blackbird, one of the hottest young ensembles around, her Zaka, for chamber ensemble, is among the strongest contenders for the award. Itâ€™s a wonderfully zany piece that zips playfully all over the musical spectrum in a dizzily post-modern way. If fun is what the voters are looking for, Zaka is a shoo-in. eighth blackbird is also nominated in the Best Chamber Music Performance category for their album, Strange Imaginary Creatures, which includes Zaka.
Zaka (eighth blackbird)
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is Peter Liebersonâ€™s Neruda Songs, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, written for his wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, while she was dying of cancer. Of any of the nominees, Lieberson is the most academic in orientation, but in these songs, he taps into a reservoir of deeply felt romanticism that gives them extraordinary warmth and emotional urgency. This album is nominated in three categories, including Best Classical Album and Best Classical Vocal Performance. Hunt Lieberson won posthumously in the latter category for her husbandâ€™s Rilke Songs last year, so itâ€™s unlikely sheâ€™ll win in that category a second straight year. The Neruda Songs are easily the most substantial nominee for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, though, and Lieberson deserves the award.
Neruda Songs: My love, if I die and you don't - (Lorraine Hunt Lieberson)
Joan Towerâ€™s Made in America, for orchestra, is also nominated in three categories, including Best Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance (Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony.) The piece was commissioned by 65 orchestras from all fifty states, so itâ€™s had the broadest exposure of any nominee. Its intent is to please a wide range of audiences, but besides being successfully accessible, it demonstrates Towerâ€™s gift for colorful orchestration, rhythmic vitality, and compelling musical logic. Tower is the best known of any of the composers on the list, with an extremely successful career behind her, which shows no signs of slowing down, so her piece may well be selected, at least in part, in recognition of her lifetime achievement.
Made in America (Leonard Slatkin)
Besides having the strongest musical content, the Lieberson and the Tower have the most compelling backstories -- Liebersonâ€™s final effulgent outpouring of love for his wife, and Towerâ€™s visionary outreach to a broad, truly national audience. That extra-musical factor is bound to have some bearing on the voting, so itâ€™s hard to predict which will take the award, and the Higdon is certainly a dark horse possibility.