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Iowa classical musicians produced dozens of recordings in 2021, spotlighting the state’s musical strengths

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Kael Bloom
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2021 brought a bumper crop of Iowa classical recordings.

No almanac predicted it, but 2021 brought a bumper crop of classical recordings featuring Iowa musicians.

Some of them highlight genres that flourish in Iowa and deserve more respect elsewhere, such as the organ, choir, classical saxophone, wind ensemble and (by happy accident) Russian guitar. Two-thirds of the recordings were fostered by Iowa colleges and universities. These institutions give musicians the time they need to perfect their craft, and often provide infrastructure for performing and recording the results.

A topical example falls last on this list, which is, for the most part, in alphabetical order. It’s a magnificent recital by Wartburg College professor of organ Karen Black, and it's meant to honor the 25th anniversary of Wartburg’s installation of an instrument by Dobson Pipe Organ Builders. That’s the Lake City firm that burned to the ground in June, which was international news partly because of Dobson’s eminence in the organ world. Thankfully, Dobson remains in business and is rebuilding in Lake City.

This list begins with artists not affiliated with universities, then continues with artists grouped by school.

Independent Musicians


William Campbell: All In Due Time

Campbell’s film scores have been nominated for Oscars, but ten years ago he recorded a celebrated piano album. The Davenport composer returns on this new CD to the solo piano, and demonstrates that he doesn’t need a big screen to explore a big topic. This new piano cycle contemplates questions like, “How do we spend the moments that make up our days, and how do we use our many occasions? What do we do when we’re waiting?”

I enjoyed each track on its own, but when heard in sequence they create something more, as we hope our own moments might.

Linda Robbins Coleman: For A Beautiful Land, on the album “American Discoveries” (New Focus Recordings FCR 286)

A co-founder of the Iowa Composers Forum, this Des Moines composer had a remarkable 2021. One highlight was her concerto “Diversions,” premiered by flutist Rose Bishop and the Southeast Iowa Symphony. Another was this new recording of Coleman’s 1996 tone poem “For A Beautiful Land.” She wrote the piece when she was composer-in-residence for what is now Orchestra Iowa, and created it to honor Iowa’s sesquicentennial.

“As the music flowed from my heart,” she wrote, “I realized that this piece was not just about Iowa. It is a song of love to our beautiful planet, nature, and life.”

That love comes through in this new recording by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, led by Australian conductor Reuben Blundell. So does the music’s richness. Let’s hope that it leads to many more recordings of Coleman’s works.     

The Dashkova Ensemble: “Russian Women Composers Of The 18th Century” (Hanssler Profil PH20070)

Iowa City’s Oleg Timofeyev, an esteemed pioneer in the revival of the Russian seven-string guitar, again explores forgotten repertoire. In this case, it’s a group of songs by women. His collaborators include mezzo-soprano Anna Bineta Diouf, an inspired musician whose voice goes straight to the heart. IPR had the honor of broadcasting her very first U.S. performance live from our studio in Iowa City, when she was here for the International Annual Russian Guitar Seminar and Festival organized by Timofeyev.

Elaine Hagenberg: four choral works on the album “Press Forward: Singing Through A Pandemic” by the Brigham Young University Singers, Men’s Chorus, Concert Choir and Women’s Chorus

In their first COVID-era release, the choirs of Brigham Young University include one work each by Brahms, Stephen Foster, John Rutter and others, but no fewer than four works by Iowa composer Elaine Hagenberg. You can hear why her music won their attention: each piece is beautifully crafted and deeply communicative.

Lisa Neher: Of Winds and Waves

An EP with three evocative works performed by the composer, a mezzo-soprano and University of Iowa graduate, and the aforementioned Rose Bishop, principal flute of the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra and educator.

Musicians At Iowa Colleges And Universities


Drake University 

Two 2021 recordings displayed the excellence of Drake’s wind department:

1) Drake University Wind Symphony conducted by Robert Meunier: “Tribute” (Mark Records 55597)
The group performs works by leading composers in the wind-ensemble genre, such as Julie Giroux and Jack Stamp, and also by new talents, such as University of Iowa graduate Aaron Perrine.

1) XPlorium Chamber Ensemble: XPlorium (Centaur CRC3887)

A group of percussionists, keyboardists and (mostly) saxophonists, including Drake University’s James Romain and former Iowan Dave Camwell. They play three new works, as well as a unique arrangement of “Carnival of the Animals.”

Luther College 

The Decorah school’s celebrated music department published three albums in 2021:

1) Luther College Nordic Choir conducted by Andrew Last: “Coming Home To The Light”

In most years, the choir records a Christmas album, but during the 2020 COVID shutdown it tried something different. A team of choir members, working with Professor Andrew Last, listened to all of their recordings from the previous four years, then compiled a set of favorites. It’s an ideal way to get to know this world-class ensemble.

2) Luther College Music Department: “Lullabies, Vol. 2”

Also a compendium, this album features music meant to help you fall asleep. It’s performed by the full spectrum of Luther ensembles and can soothe you at any hour.

3) Luther College Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Juan Tony Guzmán: “Sketches Of Sound: From Swing To Frevo”

This one will wake you up happily, with music from Duke Ellington to Marcelo Vilor.

University Of Iowa 

“If you build it, they will play” might be the motto of a set of releases from the University of Iowa’s School of Music. The floods of 2008 destroyed its old campus, but in 2016 the school moved into the new Voxman Music Building. The state-of-the-art facility helped the musicians produce a number of recordings:

1) Gregory Hand and Martin Sturm: “Inspiring Iowa” (Organ Records 72782)

Voxman houses a new organ built for it by a prestigious firm, Klais. At its inauguration, Gregory Hand said the instrument would “truly be the living, breathing heart of the building for years to come.” This CD provides evidence, including Hand’s glorious playing of Widor, Reger and Ives.

2) Rachel Joselson and Bo Ties: “Je Donnerais Mes Jours: Songs By Gabriel Dupont” (Centaur CRC 3811)

The University of Iowa soprano has made memorable recordings of neglected repertory. This new example focuses on a gifted Frenchman who lived all too briefly around the turn of the 20th century. Joselson couldn’t have found a more expert piano accompanist than University of Iowa graduate Bo Ties, who has also recorded Dupont’s complete piano works.

3) Ksenia Nosikova: Max Reger,From My Diary,” Opus 82 (Centaur 3906/7)

The “sketchbooks” of Reger require an accomplished pianist. Professor Nosikova, a Steinway Artist, shows what happens when they get a great one.

4) Amy Schendel: “Uncommon Ground: Contemporary Works For Trumpet” (MSR Classics 1536)

Released in 2020, this album didn’t reach me until 2021, so let’s count it. It features superb playing by Schendel and her colleagues in the University of Iowa Trumpet Studio, as well as by two keyboard professors at the university, organist Gregory Hand and pianist Rene Lecuona.

5) Kenneth Tse, “Sonate, Vol. II”

A world-renowned saxophonist, Professor Tse here performs five 20th century sonatas. His accompanists include two excellent pianists from the University of Iowa, Alan Huckleberry and Casey Dierlam Tse.

6) Kenneth Tse and Casey Dierlam Tse: “Coalescence” (Crystal CD 783)

The shared last name is not a coincidence: the artists are spouses. They make beautiful music together on this album of engaging and diverse repertory. It’s hard to pick a favorite from Tse’s enormous discography, but if I had to, this album would be my choice.

7) “The Voxman Project” (Crystal CD 782)

Here, Kenneth Tse premieres a concerto written for him by Kirk O’Riordan, in which he’s accompanied by the all-star University of Iowa Chamber Ensemble. It’s conducted by UI’s Director of Bands, Richard Mark Heidel. Heidel also leads the group in two masterpieces from the tumultuous 1920s, Darius Milhaud’s jazz-inspired ballet “The Creation Of The World” and Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera Suite.” Both have been recorded often, but never better than on this release.

8) Pierre Jalbert, “String Theory,” featuring his String Quartet no. 3, played by the Maia Quartet (Orchid Classics, ORC100177)

The Maia Quartet commissioned this work when it was the quartet-in-residence of the University of Iowa. The group has since disbanded, but its members continue to make a difference in Iowa. Violist Elizabeth Oakes now leads the university’s innovative String Quartet Residency Program, cellist Hannah Holman teaches at UNI and is principal cellist of the Quad City Symphony (and a member of the New York City Ballet Orchestra), and Tricia Park is a member of the Solera Quartet and leader of the MusicIC Festival. Park was central to IPR’s broadcast in August of the Riverside Theater’s “Kreutzer Sonata.”

University Of Northern Iowa 

1) Hannah Porter Occeña: “Confluence”

A marvelous recital of mostly new flute music by a productive UNI faculty member. It includes premieres of works by leading composers from around the world, and also modern classics. Porter Occeña rehearsed some of these in consultation with their composers.

2) University Of Northern Iowa Wind Ensemble, conducted by Danny Galyen: “Inspired By Art” (Mark Records 54689-MCD)

An extraordinary collection of new works inspired by artists like Grant Wood, Alexander Calder and Charles Demuth. The soloists include distinguished faculty and alumni, including Sean Botkin (piano), Andrey Floryanovich (saxophone), Andrew Wiele (clarinet in E flat), Kim Abetya (flute), Nathan Jones (tuba) and Ross Winter (violin).

Wartburg College 

Karen Black: “Ein Feste Burg, Dobson Pipe Organ 25th Anniversary”

The most cataclysmic Iowa music event this year was the fire that destroyed the workshop of Dobson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, one of the world’s most renowned organ makers. The best news is that the company is continuing its work and is planning its new headquarters in the town. As it happened, Karen Black, the Rudi Inselmann Endowed Professor of Organ at Wartburg, recorded a recital on the school’s Dobson organ to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The disc culminates in Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, and her performance is unsurpassed. Black also plays engaging music from Bach’s circle, and by two contemporary women: Iowa native Pamela Decker and Dr. Black herself. These last two remind us that the organ genre has come closer to gender equity than most fields, and that organists are more likely to compose than is typical among classical performers.

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Barney Sherman is a Senior Music Producer and Classical Music Host