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Johnny Gandelsman, 'O'

Countless musicians have cut songs and albums in response to the treacherous past few years, but few have created a body of work as profound and engaging as violinist Johnny Gandelsman. He commissioned 22 new works for violin, asking a broad range of composers to focus on 2020, the year that gave us the COVID-19 pandemic, a steep rise in racist violence and an increasingly polarized nation. He calls the new triple album This is America.

Clarice Assad's O, scored for violin and electronics, stands for oxygen – or lack of it, to be precise. Oxygen that was needed by nearly 400,000 Americans who died in 2020, gasping for breath from the coronavirus, and oxygen George Floyd was deprived of as he pleaded, "I can't breathe." Assad herself said, in the booklet notes, that she experienced panic attacks that year, feeling a "sense of entrapment in my own body."

Still, there's an airy – and dare I say hopeful – quality to the music. Gandelsman's fiddle soars and swerves around Assad's diaphanous vocals, lifting the piece above that dark, deadly year and into the light.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.