American Grace: Orli Shaham’s album of connections

Album cover for American Grace

American Grace
Piano music from Steven Mackey/John Adams
Orlie Shaham, piano
Los Angeles Philharmonic; David Robertson, conductor
Jon Kimura Parker, piano
Canary Classics

This album is all about connections — and those connections help make this release such a strong program of contemporary piano music. Orli Shaham and Steven Mackey are close personal friends. His piano concerto “Stumbling to Grace” was composed for her, and in this recording, the performance is conducted by David Robertson, Orli’s husband. These close connections facilitate communication, and to my ears, translate into a superior composition and performance.

The music is well-suited to Shaham’s technique, and she plays with a deep understanding of the material. And the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Robertson, is right there with her. This concerto, as the name implies, is one with a destination in mind. Disjointed themes gradually coalesce over the course of the 26-minute work, stumbling towards a satisfying finale that pulls all the pieces together. Without a deep understanding of the structure and purpose of all these seemingly unrelated bits, the concerto could come off as rambling mess. In this case, though, composer, soloist, and conductor all seem to be of one mind, And the result is phenomenal.

The John Adams works included are also worth the price of admission. Shaham breezes through “China Gates” with metronomic precision tempered by an expressive delicacy. Hallelujah Junction, a work for two pianos, is another outstanding performance. Jon Kimura Parker and Orli Shaham are perfectly matched, sounding like a single uber-pianist.

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