Television coverage of the Grammy Awards usually focuses on popular music categories, such as “Record of the Year” or “Album of the Year.” But the classical music industry’s rising focus on new music has amassed greater attention in mass-determined awards such as the Grammys.
This Sunday, Jan. 26, four Yale School of Music alumni — Ken Cowan MUS ’99 ’00, Andrew Craig Brown MUS ’11 ’12, Andrew Norman MUS ’09 and Caroline Shaw MUS ’07 — were recognized at the 62nd Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles as winners in their respective classical music categories.
“New music in all areas of the classical field is highlighted and supported,” said 2019 Grammy Award winner and School of Music composition professor Aaron Jay Kernis ’83. “Excellence in new and recent work is prized and recognized to a greater and ever stronger extent.”
Dean of the School of Music Robert Blocker called the recent School of Music Grammy winners a reflection of “the exceptional nature of music at Yale.”
“Their creativity and vision serve as inspiration and aspiration for future YSM students, and indeed for all of us,” Blocker said. “We congratulate each of them … and recognize all those who helped them shape their distinctive musical voices.”
Cowan won a Grammy in the “Best Choral Performance” category for his role as an organist on a recording of Maurice Duruflé’s complete choral works, with conductor Robert Simpson and the Houston Chamber Choir. Duruflé was a 20th-century French composer known for his perfectionism and compositions for organ, notably his Op. 9 “Requiem” for choir with soloists, organ and orchestra.
Cowan, who currently heads the organ program at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, is featured in Duruflé’s “Messe Cum Jubilo” and requiem, which comprise 60 minutes of the 70-minute album. Recently, Cowan has performed with renowned orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic.
Martin Jean, organ professor and director of the Institute of Sacred Music, called Cowan one of the “leading organ recitalists in the country right now.”
Brown won a Grammy as a bass-baritone in Tobias Picker’s opera “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in the “Best Opera Recording” category, for a recording with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Boston Children’s Chorus. The opera in three acts is based on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” It tells the story of an ongoing feud between a witty fox, Mr. Fox, and three evil farmers named Boggs, Bunce and Bean. Brown plays the role of Farmer Boggs.
School of Music Director of Admissions and Alumni Affairs Donna Yoo MUS ’09 said that she is “thrilled” when the Grammy Awards recognize Yale alumni, which allows “the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of our alumni with the wider world each year.”
The two alumni composers, Norman and Shaw, were recognized as composers of albums honored for “Best Orchestral Performance” and “Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance,” respectively. The awards were given to Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Norman’s piece “Sustain,” and the Attacca Quartet for Shaw’s album “Orange.”
“Sustain,” commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the orchestra’s 100th season, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2019. Through the piece, Norman asks the audience to question their perception of time. He conceptualizes the piece as one long thought that contains fragmented motifs at varying speeds.
“My first thought in writing the work was to imagine the audience that will sit in Disney Hall 100 years from now,” Norman wrote. “What will it mean to gather as a community and listen to an orchestra in 2118?”
In “Sustain,” Norman calls listeners to do more to “sustain the planet that sustains us.”
Shaw and the Attacca Quartet released “Orange” in 2019. The album features six works for string quartet: “Entr’acte,” “Valencia,” “Plan & Elevation,” “Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a,” “Punctum” and “Limestone & Felt.” It is Shaw’s first major release since 2013, when she became the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for her “Partita for 8 Voices.”
Shaw compared “Orange” to a garden that she and the Attacca Quartet tended together. Unique markings — such as “like granite” — and textures make the album a “freshly squeezed” take on the string quartet repertoire. At some moments, Shaw instructs the players to pluck the strings of their instruments while stopping the sound with a bow. At others, the musicians play without much pressure from either hand, making a pitchless “whoosh” sound. Overall, the album highlights texture and pacing.
Kernis called Yale’s musical reach “impressive” and said that the alumni represented in the list of nominees “gives a strong indication of how important the school is in nurturing talent that becomes world-renowned.”
Eleven Yale alumni were nominated for Grammy Awards this year across six of the seven classical music categories.
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org .