(HARMONIA MUNDI)
CONSIDERING MATTHEW SHEPARD

Craig Hella Johnson, Conspirare.

Harmonia mundi.

WONDERLAND
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto, Lyric Pieces.

Alice Sara Ott,
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Deutsche Grammophon.

Craig Hella Johnson: Considering Matthew Shepard. Conspirare conducted by the composer. Harmonia mundi.

Eighteen years ago Oct. 7, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was lured from a gay bar in Laramie by two men, who drove to a remote spot where they robbed, tortured, pistol whipped and left him tied to a fence. Discovered there 18 hours later by a biker who at first thought he had seen a scarecrow, Shepard died of his injuries five days later, never having regained consciousness. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Craig Hella Johnson, conductor of the acclaimed Austin-based choral group Conspirare, has composed an oratorio titled “Considering Matthew Shepard.” It begins, like an epic poem, by invoking the muse. In this case, the invocation quotes the C major Prelude from the “Well-Tempered Clavier,” and the muse is Johann Sebastian Bach himself.

Like Bach’s large-scale choral works, this spellbinding piece draws on many styles masterfully juxtaposed, though Johnson’s sources are the American vernacular. A Prologue, Passion and Epilogue, extending for more than an 1¾ hours, combine spoken text, cowboy song, American hymnody and popular song, spirituals, jazz and dazzling polyphony, all woven into a seamless tapestry. The impact is immediate, profound and, at times, overwhelming. Johnson conducts 29 voices of Conspirare with an eight-piece instrumental ensemble in a brilliant, heartfelt performance.

Not unlike John Adams’s post-9/11 masterpiece, “On the Transmigration of Souls,” Johnson’s “Considering Matthew Shepard” demonstrates music’s capacity to encompass, transform and transcend tragedy. Powerfully cathartic, it leads us from horror and grief to a higher understanding of the human condition, enabling us to endure.

— Patrick Rucker

“Wonderland” Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto, Lyric Pieces, Peer Gynt Suite transcriptions. Alice Sara Ott, piano; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Deutsche Grammophon.

Alice Sara Ott’s new Grieg CD, including the Concerto as well as solo pieces, is puzzling. The Munich-born pianist created a minor sensation with her 2010 debut recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. But for the past couple of years, she has seemed reticent, limiting her recordings to slightly pedestrian collaborations with other keyboard players.

Ott’s partners in this new release couldn’t be better. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the superb Finnish conductor and composer, leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in peak form. It’s fair to say that they, and not the pianist, are the stars of this Grieg Concerto, with their sumptuous sound, meltingly beautiful orchestral solos and mastery of the score’s dramatic trajectory.

Ott sounds unwilling to assert herself in this distinguished company. Her delivery of the solo part is preoccupied with quirky rubato, unusual accentuation and unexpected dynamics, as though straining toward an original statement that hasn’t quite gelled.

The solos, selected from the various sets of the “Lyric Pieces” and Grieg’s own arrangements from the “Peer Gynt Suite,” show Ott’s charm and sensitivity in a better light. Some of the more forthright pieces, including “March of the Dwarves” and “To Spring,” are thoroughly convincing. But in slower tempos, such as “Once Upon a Time,” “Solveig’s Song” and “Nocturne,” Ott’s tendency to linger over phrases undermines the rhythmic scaffolding of these delicate structures.

Through all this, one senses a fine pianist with sound musical instincts. But for the moment we must wait for a showcase better suited to Ott’s remarkable talent.

— Patrick Rucker