Orli Shaham's Piano Album 'American Grace' Is a Decidedly Family Affair

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Steven Mackey's new piano concerto for Orli Shaham, Stumble to Grace, is an easy fit with the music of John Adams. As Frank Oteri points out in his liner notes to this premiere recording on the album "American Grace," the two composers share a bicoastal biography: the Harvard-educated Adams found his musical voice in Berkeley and San Francisco, while Mackey, raised in California, now teaches at Princeton.

They also share a certain rock-meets-Romantic aesthetic, borrowing from the rhythmic force of American vernacular music and the harmonic and orchestral muscle of classical music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both the Adams works here – his very early China Gates and, dating roughly two decades later, the two-piano, four-hands Hallelujah Junction – have been recorded more than once before, but Shaham's interpretations of both are welcome additions to the discography. She and fellow keyboardist Jon Kimura Parker bring the kind of force and precision these intricate, passionate pieces demand. 

Mackey's concerto, though a work of sprawling ambitions and resources, is in some respects a decidedly intimate affair. Mackey's wife – the estimable composer and New Amsterdam Records impresario Sarah Kirkland Snider – and Orli Shaham were both expecting, Shaham explains, when she first conceived of the idea to commission a piano concerto from him, and the birth and rearing of those children brought the two of them closer.

The infancy of Mackey's son inspired this piece, which gradually develops from the staggering first steps of the opening movement to a virtuosic fugue in the finale; as a pendant, the disc includes Sneaky March, a children's piece for piano solo that Mackey wrote for Shaham, also inspired by his son and using some of the materials that would later turn up in Stumble.

In case all of that weren't cozy enough, the conductor here is Shaham's husband, the colossally gifted David Robertson, here at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; it's hard to imagine an ensemble better suited to this repertoire than the smart and luxurious L.A. Phil. The album is out now on Canary Classics – a label founded by Orli's brother, virtuoso violinist Gil Shaham.

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