The year 2020 was, in so many ways, divided. In terms of live performances, musicians were forced to reinvent, reflect and respond from a distance and in turn I watched their concerts from the remove of my laptop screen. Some artists offered professionally produced live shows, like stunning recitals from Jonas Kaufmann and Lise Davidsen, while others handcrafted their own videos shot in the safety and solitude of home, like Julia Bullock and Víkingur Ólafsson. And a few institutions, such as the New York Philharmonic, ventured outdoors, where artists played for tiny audiences.
Still, while streams dominated this chaotic, sorrowful year, musicians continued to lay down official statements in the form of albums. And as the pandemic exploded, the economy cracked, the protests thundered and politics grew even more partisan, the arresting albums listed below became the soundtrack to my 2020 – the best in troubled times. In the order they were released are 12 albums that inspired hope, offered comfort and confrontation and provided much needed escape from a year like no other.
The year opened with Sanctuary Road, a lyrical and historically vibrant oratorio by Paul Moravec, reintroducing William Still, an American hero who ushered hundreds of enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad and then documented it all. I was astounded by the story of Ellen Craft, who bravely disguised herself as a white slave owner riding the train to Philadelphia. The album was released just a few days before a very different chapter in American history unfolded: Managers in the House of Representatives read aloud impeachment articles against Donald Trump, triggering only the third such trial of a United States president.
Adès Conducts Adès is a "before and after" album. Before the pandemic hit, I reveled in the album's crackling, thrill ride of a piano concerto, played with utter élan by Kirill Gerstein. After COVID began claiming more and more lives, I listened in awe to the companion piece on the album, the imposing, fiercely brilliant Totentanz (Dance of Death). Scored for massive orchestra with vocal soloists, the complex work spotlights the grim reaper in a terminal pas de deux with all strata of society — from the Pope down to an innocent infant — reinforcing the horrifying reality that is our eventual demise.
April, the month by which our President said the virus might disappear, offered a pair of opposite albums. The title alone, The experience of repetition as death, is enough to make you think twice in a year where we've been counting deaths from the pandemic by the minute. But cellist Clarice Jensen's soaring, swelling, electronically treated loops were a revelation to me – at once forcing a confrontation with deepest fears and supplying a chilled out space to let go of the mind completely. On the other side was the musical equivalent of champagne. The sparkling keyboard concertos by C.P.E. Bach (son of J.S.), played with appropriate charm by Michael Rische, brightened the gloom-ridden days. Bach's hairpin turns and witty cadences left me both breathless and wondering which direction he, and my world, might go next.
As protests ignited across the country in response to George Floyd's killing by police on May 25, an important album offered a vivid flashback to Jim Crow-era systemic racism in the classical music world. William Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony brought Carnegie Hall patrons to their feet when Leopold Stokowski conducted it there in 1934. After a few more performances, the symphony was forgotten and, for the most part, so was Dawson, who dreamed of writing another symphony but never did. There have been only two recordings of the work since 1963, until now. The symphony is emotionally vibrant and meticulously built, capturing a community in sound with cinematic poignancy. Also in June, a trio of women delivered DANCE, a cello concerto by British composer Anna Clyne. Marin Alsop conducts the London Philharmonic with soloist Inbal Segev in music that celebrates sheer beauty and a poetic search for self-knowledge.
This month saw California's wildfires worsen, hurricanes and a calamitous Motorcycle rally that would trigger more than a quarter million COVID cases. All I wanted to do was find an escape, and two albums offered an off-ramp from reality. The intrepid choir Roomful of Teeth recorded composer Michael Harrison's Just Constellations in a gigantic abandoned water tank, which accentuated the precisely blended singing and swirling "halos" of reverberant sound. Another sure bet for inducing a space of calm repose is the music of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose lightly perfumed Piano Concertino softly caresses with clouds of sound in a performance by Oleg Bezborodko and the Lithuanian National Symphony.
At a time when singers, especially choristers, are the hardest hit musicians, a glorious choral album from composer Sarah Kirkland Snider renewed my faith in humans joining in song for purpose and strength. Mass for the Endangered might be inspired by the traditional Catholic mass but Snider's 21st century twist focuses not on our relationship to God, but instead to the flora and fauna on our planet. With layers of sweet and tangy harmonies, shooting out in radiant beams, Snider must be recognized as one of today's most compelling composers for the human voice.
While the President tested positive for the virus, protests for racial justice raged on in places like Wisconsin, over the fatal police shooting of Alvin Cole and Oregon, where statues of Presidents Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were toppled. Meanwhile, sleep, for me, like many, was becoming more elusive. Pianist Bertrand Chamayou's Good Night!, a gorgeous album of all things nocturnal and lullaby-like, should have helped weight the eyelids, but I was too wired. Still, the French player's silken touch and smart programming — of music from Janáček and Chopin to Busoni and Bryce Dessner — served to smooth out frayed nerves.
This year, time has tricked me, clicking back on itself like a broken record. So I generally avoided listening to music busy with repetitions. But I did lean in, wholeheartedly, to Tristan Perich's mesmerizing orchestral work Drift Multiply. Scored for 50 violins and the composer's trademark single-bit electronics, the minimalist oscillations and slow motion shifts of texture provide musical fuel to get through the day — which of course unfolds just like the day before.
In a year where we yearned for healing, artists responded in myriad ways. Reacting to the pandemic, Donald Nally, the conductor of the Grammy-winning, Philadelphia-based choir called The Crossing, offered up live concert recordings of his group at sunrise via email and social media blasts. He curated them into a new album, Rising w/The Crossing that displays the group's signature precision and versatility across a wide range of mainly contemporary music. The album opens with an eerily prescient 2019 piece by David Lang titled Protect Yourself from Infection where, in an incantatory call and response, cautionary behaviors are suggested, such as "Beware of those who are coughing and sneezing." Other pieces speak to the ephemeral nature of life, the fragility of freedom and the bonds between mother and child. It's an album that unites voices in a time of solitude, that offers hope for a better 2021.