This month's Classical Roundup starts with something a little more aggressive than you might be used to in this genre. Percussionist and composer David T. Little, of the crack modern-music ensemble Newspeak, has used that group to put some muscle into Soldier Songs, his chamber opera about combat in the War on Terror era. If you pay attention to the vocals on "Still Life with Tank and iPod" (in which the soldier is listening to Metallica to pump himself up for battle), you'll know you're in classical music territory, even if listening to the thrashing guitar and percussion parts may make you check your style compass.
Don't spend too long trying to figure out which way is up. Chilean protest anthems, antiwar chamber operas, and interfaces with rock and jazz: This month's classical music brings enough "social relevance" to put it on par with any other genre you'd care to name.
We have Wayne Shorter debuting a new piece for his jazz quartet, plus the Imani Winds ensemble. We have JoAnn Falletta leading The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra through orchestral arrangements of Duke Ellington's tone poems. (Somehow they swing and bring orchestral heft, and only rarely seem to strain while doing so.) Meantime, Esa-Pekka Salonen continued his international advocacy on behalf of 20th-century composition by releasing surveys of works by Polish master Witold Lutoslawski, as well as French innovator Henri Dutilleux. And Frederic Rzewski's anti-imperialist piano opus The People United Will Never Be Defeated (based on a Chilean work song) gets an important new recording at the hands of Ole Kiilerich.
Oh, and there has been some traditional excellence as well, though even these releases have a touch of the radical about them: Gustavo Dudamel's first Mahler exploration with his L.A. Philharmonic deserves to be heard, as does Alan Gilbert's newest recording with the New York Philharmonic. (In the former case, this is due to its exorbitant, two-CD-requiring length; in the latter, the tweak is that they sneaked in Arnold Schoenberg between Bach and Mozart.) In another daring pairing, young piano phenom Herbert Schuch tackles a wild and weird piano concerto by Viktor Ullmann alongside a very familiar Beethoven piece. And when violinist Lisa Batiashvili attends to good old Brahms, she closes the album with a trio of "romances" by the woman he loved, the all-too-often-unheard Clara Schumann. Hear it all (and more) in the appended playlist.