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Classical Notes

Category Archive: Composers

Composer conversations get at the heart of making music

Posted at 10:00 AM on December 12, 2014 by Vaughn Ormseth (0 Comments)
Filed under: Casual Conversations, Composers, Events

Composer Missy Mazzoli will participate in Composer Conversations on May 8, 2015 (photo by Stephen S. Taylor)

"All music was once new," goes the sign off each day for The Composers Datebook.

Maybe that's self-evident, yet to fans of classical music, it can still sound a little startling. We cherish classical music in large part for its timelessness — the capacity to speak across generations and centuries. At best, its power is at once enduring and time-specific, universal and personal.

But if great music tunes us in to the eternal, it's still grounded in the time and place of its original creation, the moment of its being "once new." It's easy to forget, as we return again and again to our favorite masterworks, that classical music (broadly defined) is a living art form, not only because centuries-old works continue to invite exhilarating new interpretations, but as importantly because it continues to incorporate the present-day works of living composers.

Intended for music lovers of all stripes, Composer Conversations is an informal sit-down with some of our time's best emerging and established living composers, and some of the artists who perform their music. Now in its third year and hosted by Top Score's Emily Reese, the series explores its guests' inspirations, artistic history, and current projects, offering a glimpse into the processes and people behind the compositions.

The 2015 Composer Conversations will welcome Kevin Puts (Feb. 18); Bryce Dessner with special guests Carolyn Shaw and Richard Reed Perry (April 2); Fred Lerdahl (April 22); and Missy Mazzoli (May 8). All conversations take place at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall in downtown St. Paul. Tickets are free, but reservations are required.

Past Composer Conversations guests include Laurie Anderson, Maria Schneider, John Luther Adams, Shawn Jaeger, Nicola Campogrande, John Harbison, Sufjan Stevens, Vivian Fung, Timo Andres, Gabriel Kahane, and Dawn Upshaw.


The Music of Living Composers

Posted at 3:01 PM on November 26, 2014 by Daniel Nass
Filed under: Composers, Fun finds, In the media

When people find out that I'm a composer, one of my favorite reactions is, "wait... people still do that?"

It's true! Not all of the music heard in concert halls was written by composers who have been dead for hundreds of years, though it certainly makes up the majority (by a wide margin) of what we hear. On occasion, audiences can also hear the music of the living.

There are some interesting numbers revealed by a recent analysis of the performance seasons of the 22 largest American symphony orchestras. Most notably, during the 2014-2015 season, 11.8 percent of the pieces performed by these 22 orchestras were pieces written by living composers (the most frequently performed living composer this season is John Adams, with 35 performances).

Though those numbers appear to be small, it does seem that audiences are becoming increasingly open and willing to try to connect with new music. The opening 30 seconds of the trailer for the film "(Untitled)" seems to capture the essence of the 'weird' music that audiences tend to be intimidated by (an interesting aside — this film was scored by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang):

What do you think? What's your reaction to opening up a concert program to find that you'll be hearing music written by a living composer?

Who's Britain's favorite British composer?

Posted at 9:02 PM on November 2, 2014 by Jay Gabler (2 Comments)
Filed under: Composers

Edward Elgar.jpg

No surprise, really: in a BBC survey, Britons chose Edward Elgar as their favorite British composer. Elgar may not be as critically acclaimed as runners-up Ralph Vaughan Williams (second place), Benjamin Britten (third), or Henry Purcell (fourth), but he's certainly the most quintessentially British composer: the sonorous tones of his Pomp and Circumstance No. 1, which became the tune for "Land of Hope and Glory," are a highlight of every concluding night at the Proms as well as countless other ceremonial occasions. Much of the rest of Elgar's oeuvre flows from the same, or closely related, veins.

This raises the question: who's America's favorite American composer? There hasn't been a comparable survey here, and very unscientific polls by Violinist.com and Gaia resulted in the very different answers of Samuel Barber and John Adams, respectively. When we polled our audience on your favorite composers, some time back, no American even made the top ten. Probably the most accurate answer comes from Google, which indicates that Copland is the American composer most often mentioned on the Internet.

What do you think? Who's your favorite British composer? Is Copland our Elgar?


Casting Call: Which actors would play these composers?

Posted at 1:50 PM on October 28, 2014 by Luke Taylor (2 Comments)
Filed under: Composers

A friend of mine works in the development of motion pictures, and a critical component of his work is getting actors attached to projects. That way, when he goes into a meeting with potential investors, he can make a much more potent case if he has, say, Ben Kingsley or Meryl Streep committed to play a key role in a prospective film.

It got me thinking that if I were to cast a series of biopics about the lives of composers, which actors might I seek? Here's a shortlist, based on physical resemblances and acting chops.

Hector Berlioz — James Cromwell

Hardworking and versatile, James Cromwell seems a great pick to play the French composer who wrote Symphonie Fantastique.

Claude Debussy — Ricky Gervais

Another French composer, Claude Debussy, bears a resemblance to Ricky Gervais. As his French name suggests, Gervais has French ancestry (which could be about 400 years removed via his Canadian-born father), but perhaps there is some shared genetic history.

Francis Poulenc — John Turturro

Known for his fine work in films by Joel and Ethan Coen, Turturro seems a fine casting choice in a film about the curious life of Francis Poulenc. Poulenc was originally set for a career in business, but his passion for music led him to a largely self-taught musical vocation. And speaking of passion, Turturro worked on a 2010 film called Passione, about the music of Naples, Italy.

Ludwig van Beethoven — Trevor Peacock

Perhaps you know-know-know Trevor Peacock from his role as the dithering Jim Trott in the BBC series The Vicar of Dibley. Among his many credits, Peacock also appeared in the Dustin Hoffman-directed Quartet, a film set in a residence for retired musicians. And it's notable that Peacock himself is no slouch as a composer, having written a number of songs, including the proto-twee-pop hit, "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter", made popular by Herman's Hermits.

Maurice Ravel — John Slattery

Slattery, of Mad Men and West Wing renown, seems a strong choice to play the Impressionist French composer who took America by storm during a tour of the U.S. in the 1920s (which, according to local tradition, included a train change at St. Paul's Union Depot).

Richard Strauss — Richard Dreyfuss

In addition to his work as a composer, Richard Strauss was also a conductor, and we've seen Richard Dreyfuss handle that role with aplomb in the 1995 paean to music teachers, Mr. Holland's Opus.

Guiseppe Verdi — Scott Wilson

A fine choice to play operatic storyteller Verdi is Scott Wilson, known widely for his work in the role of Herschel, the Obi Wan of AMC's The Walking Dead.

Ottorino Respighi — John Malkovich

Based on the photo above, Malkovich may already be auditioning for a role as Respighi. Among many interesting facets of Respighi's life is his friendship with the scientist Enrico Fermi, who asked Respighi to explain music to him in terms of physics. Respighi was unsuccessful, but certainly there's a well of riveting dialogue there that's waiting to be tapped. And who would play Fermi? I'm thinking Kevin Spacey. Cast Malkovich as Respighi and Spacey as Fermi and watch the sparks fly. Maybe this one is a theater production.

Jacques Offenbach — Michael Emerson

After some time in hair and makeup, Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest) would likely savor the role of the prolific composer Jacques Offenbach, who also worked as a cellist and conductor. Coincidentally, Offenbach is the name of a residential street in greater Paris, and Emerson is the name of a residential street in Minneapolis, so there's potential for future trivia questions, too.

What other casting choices can you think of? Share your ideas in the comments below.


Kobe Bryant is big on Beethoven

Posted at 9:15 AM on August 13, 2014 by Elena See
Filed under: Composers, Fun finds, In the media, Ludwig van Beethoven

L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, seen here in a game against the Atlanta Hawks (photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Basketball star Kobe Bryant has revealed his line of new shoes for Nike. They're called "Kobe 9 Elite Low 'Beethoven'". Nike says the inspiration for the shoes apparently came from the composer's Symphony No. 9 in particular.

Bryant himself has tweeted about his fondness for Beethoven's music, particularly his Moonlight Sonata:

On a related note, Bryant has evidently appeared in a TV commercial for Lenovo, in which he plays Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, but as of this morning, the video has been removed from YouTube.

This commercial, made for shoe seller Foot Locker, features Bryant appearing to build a piano:

Oh … the 'Kobe 9 Elite Low "Beethoven" shoes are due to be available in the U.S. starting Saturday, Aug. 16, with an estimated price tag of $200.

Orchestra Rehearsal with Conductor Ferenc Fricsay

Posted at 4:09 PM on August 8, 2014 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Composers, Film

August 9 is the 100th birthday of the conductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914-63). Along with many recordings, he left behind a fascinating documentary for German TV, showing how conductor and orchestra work together in rehearsal.

For about 40 minutes, we see Fricsay rehearsing — a long time, but you can dip into it at any point. The music is familiar — Smetana's "Moldau" (or "Vltava"), but Fricsay is totally engaged, despite his poor health: always bringing out some interesting detail, or encouraging or correcting the players, or indulging in some poetic metaphor ("The panther is ready to leap!").

At the end of the documentary, at about 44:00, you'll see the finished performance.

Giving the viola some respect

Posted at 10:33 AM on April 25, 2014 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Composers, Concerts, Fun finds

The viola is the instrument musicians love to tease — so much so, that there is an entire category of jokes about them. Classical MPR's Steve Staruch is a violist, but he loves viola jokes. There's a German expression, Was sich liebt, das neckt sich — "Those who love each other, tease each other"; in other words, teasing is a sign of affection. So here are three displays of affection for the viola:

How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune?
The bow is moving.

What's the difference between a viola and an onion?
No one cries when you cut up a viola.

Why don't violists play hide and seek?
Because no one will look for them.

Amusing as that last joke is, the reality, of course, is different. Music benefactors Linda and Stuart Nelson deliberately sought out violist Paul Neubauer and offered to commission a new work for him, and Neubauer thought, "Why not a viola concerto, and why not have Aaron Jay Kernis write that viola concerto?"

The resulting work received its world premiere with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra just last night (Thursday, April 24), and a new video released by the SPCO takes viewers inside Kernis's new Viola Concerto, from both the composer's and musician's points of view.

In the video, Kernis says his new concerto is "uniquely tailored for Paul and the viola" because Neubauer "draws so many beautiful colors out of the instrument." Over the course of the nearly seven-minute video, Kernis and Neubauer provide a sort of hop-on/hop-off tour of the work, discussing each movement and its influences and inspirations.

"I hope audiences have a very strong reaction to this piece," Kernis says, "and [I] hope that it will find its way out in the world with such an amazing soloist and wonderful musician at its center."

Neubauer adds, "I hope 20 years from now, this becomes a staple of the [viola] repertoire."

Watch the video to learn more about this new piece. The SPCO and Neubauer will perform it again tonight and tomorrow, April 25 and 26, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.

What do you think of this new work? Did you attend the concert? Are you planning to attend one of them this weekend? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Bach by the numbers

Posted at 12:12 PM on March 21, 2014 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Composers, Fun finds, In the media, Johann Sebastian Bach

When it comes to celebrating famous birthdays, we all love the numbers that end in 0 and 5. But a 329th birthday? Pah.

When it comes to J.S. Bach, however, perhaps we should think again.


According to an article by The Guardian's Philip Oltermann, Bach's 329th birthday is quite a big deal for scholars and numerologists:

Some researchers claim that the Baroque composer had an obsession with the number 14, the sum of the numeric value of the letters in his surname (B+A+C+H = 2+1+3+8 = 14). The numbers 3, 2 and 9 also add up to 14 - and all this 14 years into the 21st century. Coincidence?

Oltermann goes on to report that the Bach Museum in the composer's hometown of Eisenach, Germany, will feature an exhibition this year that explores J.S. Bach's fascination with numbers and number puzzles. One of the items on display includes a painting in which Bach wears a vest with 14 buttons and holds a drinking cup with a 14-point monogram.

There is some scholarly debate about the 14 obsession, but the idea of a composer being fond of numbers isn't difficult to imagine. You can read Oltermann's entire article about Bach and numerals here.

Go inside a composer's apartment

Posted at 2:01 PM on March 19, 2014 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Composers, Fun finds, In the media

For composer Timo Andres, home is where the art is.

According to New York City's classical-music radio station WQXR, "Connecticut-born Andres likens his music to 'walking into an interesting apartment and seeing a few things next to each other that tell you something about a person.' "

How appropriate, then, that Andres recently invited WQXR into his apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., to talk about where he lives and works:

Andres is in St. Paul, Minn., this week; he'll be one of the speakers featured in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Composer Conversation series event tomorrow night, Thursday, March 20, at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall.

John Lunn keeps writing music for 'Downton Abbey'

Posted at 4:13 PM on March 13, 2014 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Composers, Fun finds, In the media

Music is such a powerful tool when it comes to film and television; as Downton Abbey composer John Lunn told me in April 2012, "I'm manipulating what's going on quite a lot underneath the dialogue ... without it, you'd view the scene differently."

That was back when he was working on the third season of the popular period drama. Now with four seasons in the books, Lunn has launched into the fifth batch of episodes for Downton Abbey.

To give further insight into his ongoing work, Lunn recently contributed a guest post to Downton's Tumblr page, and shared it via this Tweet:

Central to Downton Abbey — or any drama for that matter — are the relationships between the characters. As Lunn writes,

"Writing music for such a series does require a certain amount of flexibility. Each thematic strand must stand out and be distinctive, but ideally each one must be able to transform itself into another. There are always a few constants — the House, the Crawleys, although even they change, and the Masters and Servants; but the development of the music is about the relationships between people."

One of the changes that's been a bit difficult for Lunn was the death of Matthew Crawley at the end of series three. See what Lunn has to say about that by viewing his complete post.

And if you're going through some Downton Abbey withdrawal, Steve Staruch's interview with the Oratorio Society of Minnesota casts some light on what that group is doing to keep the show's music alive during the stretches between seasons.

Crush the Choral Geeks Quiz

Posted at 4:41 PM on February 24, 2014 by Tesfa Wondemagegnehu
Filed under: Choral Music, Composers, Fun finds

Fellow Choral Geeks,

I hereby challenge you with this mini version of quiz that will be released during Classical MPR's Choral Month. After you finish the quiz, I invite you to LIKE our Choral Music from Classical MPR Facebook page to learn more about upcoming events and exciting choral initiatives. Don't forget to SHARE! 

(Note, the quiz requires Adobe Flash, so most mobile devices will be unable to participate this time. We'll work on bringing a more accessible quiz next time.) 

A Benjamin Britten puzzle

Posted at 11:12 AM on November 22, 2013 by Alison Young
Filed under: Composers, Fun finds

brittenforweb.jpgBenjamin Britten (London Records)

You may recall how, on Giuseppe Verdi's birthday, George Barany and Noam Elkies put together a fun (and challenging!) crossword puzzle centered on the great Italian composer.

Now Barany and Elkies have done it again, this time for the man whose centenary we mark today: Benjamin Britten.

Barany and Elkies have called their puzzle "Coin of the Musical Realm", and you can find it by following this link. Feel free to let me know how you did on the puzzle by leaving a comment below.

Good luck and have fun!

Local Boy Makes Good

Posted at 3:45 PM on October 14, 2013 by Alison Young
Filed under: Composers, Musician stories

Composer Aaron Holloway-Nahun
Aaron Holloway-Nahun (submitted photo)

Composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum is a graduate of Edina High School in Edina, Minn., and has made it to the big time. But according to his neighbor (and singer in the Minnesota Chorale) Judi Harvey, Aaron is still Minnesota Nice.

Aaron lives in England now and is working with the BBC Symphony and London Sinfonietta. His music is colorful, full of wit and draws us right into its sound world. The folks over at the Copland House know this and awarded Aaron with a coveted, all-expenses-paid residency at the House in New York.

I recently caught up with Aaron for a little cross-Atlantic Q&A.

ALISON YOUNG: You say that you didn't actually begin composing until you were 17. What was your musical involvement before then?

AARON HOLLOWAY-NAHUM: As a child, I was primarily involved in music as a singer (I also studied piano, but took singing more seriously). I sang in a number of state, regional and national honors choirs. I sang in the choirs throughout my time at Valley View Middle School, and at Edina High School, I was in the Concert Choir and Chamber Singers. I studied voice and piano privately throughout these years as well.

Was there anything specific that you did/learned/were exposed to in Edina that moved you to the path you're on now?

The concert choir puts on a concert each spring term called "Current Jam," and I put together a large, all-male, a cappella group in my Junior year. This required some arranging/composition work, and so I went to my choral director (Dr. David Henderson) and asked him if he had any advice on where I could learn some of this. I think he had a lot more in mind for me because — instead of just giving me a book, or pointing out I could perfectly well write for the voice having sung for 10 years or so — he sent me to the director of bands at Edina High School. The band director subsequently gave me a copy of Walter Piston's Orchestration textbook. I'll never forget opening it up and finding all this information about all the instruments. It had never even occurred to me that I could write for the violin without being able to play it myself. I immediately started writing music. A few months later I was accepted as a composition student on the Northwestern University Summer Music Program, and two years later I would enter Northwestern as a joint composition/vocal major. (I quickly dropped the voice major in favor of conducting studies!)

What drew you to study and work in London?

I had the incredible good fortune to study, at Northwestern, with Augusta Read Thomas. She had studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and through our conversations about European music and London in general I knew — from about the end of my sophomore year, I think — that I wanted to spend at least some time studying in London.

Tell me about SoundHub and maybe one especially cool experience you've had in this program.

LSO Soundhub is a recent program, established by the London Symphony Orchestra to try and create a community of composers who have a relationship with the orchestra. Soundhub events range from concerts of works by member composers, to workshops with LSO players, to interviews with composers such as John Adams and practical workshops on recording/publishing/etc.

I was a member of the pilot scheme and am now a member of the second and third year of Soundhub. There have been a number of incredible experiences; one of the everyday experiences it's easy to forget is that the orchestra invites you into its rehearsals. This morning I heard the LSO rehearse Shostakovich's 4th Symphony, which is an astounding piece. To hear orchestral music rehearsed and performed live on a regular basis is too rare for composers today and a real privilege.

To pick one of my own experiences, though, I'd say working with LSO Players Lorenzo Iosco (Bass Clarinet) and David Worswick (1st violins) to create a work for amplified bass clarinet and amplified violin in the gorgeous LSO St. Luke's. The work was really very collaborative. I had the chance to write blog posts about the process of writing the work (here, here and here) and the final work has ended up on the LSO YouTube Channel. It's every composer's dream to work with such incredible musicians, and to have such a wide platform for that work to be heard is really very exciting and humbling.

What does your work as a recording engineer bring to your work as composer?

It was actually my compositional work (an interest in live amplification, such as in the piece above) that led me into live sound and audio recording. There is certainly a feedback loop, though. When you're working as a recording engineer, you need to think about sound in a very particular way. For example, you have to use all sorts of techniques, tricks and subtle adjustments to make a recording sound anything like the experience of seeing a piece live (this is why, for example, an orchestra cannot be suitably recorded by just sticking two microphones where the audience would sit). So as you're working toward this you have to have a very clear picture of what you want this orchestra, or this solo instrument, or this band (or whatever it is) to sound like.

Then you get incredibly precise about the three aspects of the sound that most interest me as a composer: attack, sustain and decay. What does the front end of the sound sound like? You might be forced to make large or small adjustments as to microphone placement to account for this. Is everything blending together the way you want it to? Do the instruments interfere with or help each other musically? And in terms of decay — what is the tail of the sound like? What kind of a space am I hearing this in?

This kind of precision is very dear to the way I compose. I work tremendously hard to think about the articulation and life of every note that I write. (Many composers think I write far too much information in my scores but I'm always receiving positive feedback on this exact point from musicians themselves). It also teaches you that — unlike a recording — you simply can't control every element of a live performance. Someone seated at the back of the hall is simply going to have a different experience to someone at the very front of it. So what is their experience and what can I do, as a composer, to communicate as much as I can to both of them?

It's all this sort of stuff!

What does it mean to you to be an "emerging" composer? What does it mean today to be a classical composer?

To be honest with you, this is kind of a running joke among people in the industry. These labels are very difficult things to get correct, and it's not entirely clear how (or when) a composer goes from being "emerging" to "emerged" or whatever it is you might want to call it. What I can tell you is that most emerging composers have reached a really high level of musicianship and technical ability, but probably aren't yet making a full-time career out of composition. Then again, being a classical composer today almost universally entails things such as teaching of some kind, and often other supplementary work such as my working as a recording engineer and as artistic director of The Riot Ensemble.

Tell me about your current projects.

I've had a really fantastic time this past year working with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a project called "Embedded" run through a fantastic British organization called Sound and Music. The premiere of my new orchestral piece, The Deeper Breath to Follow, will take place on Thursday, Nov. 14. (Tickets are free if you're in London!)

I'm also currently working with the London Sinfonietta on a December premiere in its New Music Show, am an LSO Soundhub member (for which I'm writing a new work for June) and am currently writing a Clarinet Quintet for Timothy Orpen.

I'm also continuing on in 2014 as Artistic Director of The Riot Ensemble. We'll be announcing our 2014 season soon, which already includes commissions from all over the world and a number of really exciting projects.

What do you hope to accomplish at the Copland House? What are you looking forward to the most?

I am really looking forward to having day after day of uninterrupted time to compose. As you can see from everything I've said, composition really just makes up a part of what my day-to-day life looks like. I'm always being pulled away from my office table, which is where I work. At Copland House, all the rest of that will quiet down for a while and I will be able to pick up the pen in the morning without any need to put it down until I'm ready.

If all the stars aligned, what would your life look like?

I feel totally blessed just to be living the life I am living right now! Of course I would — over time — like to have even more time to dedicate to composition, but the truth is that I would never want to totally give up my other work. I think I'd really love to see The Riot Ensemble grow into an international new music organization that champions the works of emerging composers from all over the world, and my own dream is to be able to write orchestral music throughout my life. I just love orchestras so much!

Do you have videos or samples of your music that we can post online?

Yes, my website is probably the best place!

Here is a recent, short animation of a violin piece I wrote (animation by 12foot6):

Here is a video of me conducting The Riot Ensemble in the world premiere of my work 'Plainer Sailing' (text by Sasha Dugdale) in an London Symphony Orchestra Discovery Concert:

Here is an 'introductory video to me' from my website:

Here is a youtube video of my wife playing one of my Hugo Wolf song transcriptions:

A Verdi-related video suggestion

Posted at 11:30 AM on October 11, 2013 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Composers, Fun finds, In the media

Maggie Smith in 'Quartet'
Maggie Smith stars in 'Quartet' (BBC Films/The Weinstein Company)

As we wrap up the week of Giuseppe Verdi's bicentenary, here is a home-video pick to help you carry the celebration into the weekend.

Giuseppe Verdi was obviously a celebrated and successful opera composer, and he was able to share his success through philanthropy. Notably, Verdi founded a home in Milan, Italy, for retired opera singers and musicians. Originally called by the functional title Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, it is also known as Casa Verdi, and it continues to operate today.

The existence of Casa Verdi inspired writer Ronald Harwood to craft a stage- and later a screenplay that would become the film Quartet, released in 2012 and directed by Dustin Hoffman.

Quartet is set in a fictitious retirement home for musicians in Britain (based on Casa Verdi), and it stars Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Tom Courteney and Pauline Collins. The plot hinges on a recital put on by the residents of the home; the recital is a gala fundraiser that ensures the retirement home will continue operating.

Giving a nod to his inspiration for the script, Harwood sets the rectial on Verdi's birthday. The hope among the home's residents and its prospective gala attendees is that the eponymous quartet — who wowed audiences in an earlier era — will perform selections from Verdi's Rigoletto.

Besides a thoughtful and witty script brought wonderfully to life through the cast's committed performances, Quartet is notable for its use of actual musicians.

Director Dustin Hoffman, in an interview with BBC Radio Five Live's Simon Mayo, said that for the film to be fully realized, he had to hire real retired opera singers and musicians. "In the film, they are all doing their own singing, their own instrumental playing," Hoffman said. "There's no fakery."

Quartet is also one of those rare films, like Waking Ned or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that sees older protagonists chasing their dreams. It's a point that wasn't lost on Hoffman as he was casting the retired singers and musicians.

"These gifted people that are on the screen, whether they are musicians or singers, no one had rung their phones for 30, 40 years, and yet talent remains in them," Hoffman said to the BBC's Simon Mayo. "For whatever mysterious reason there is, whether in America or England or anywhere, people become recyclable after they reach a certain age, and no one calls them, even if they can still deliver in the way they've been doing it all their lives. And I think the film wants to [call attention to] the fact that we are somehow dismissing a vital part of our culture."

Be sure to watch through the film's closing credits, which include highlights of the cast's careers in music.

Quartet is available through mail-order DVD services, on-demand streaming services as well as in certain video vending machines. That said, I watched Quartet for free, thanks to DVD checkout from Minneapolis Public Library.

View the official trailer for Quartet:

A Verdi Puzzle

Posted at 10:05 AM on October 10, 2013 by Alison Young (1 Comments)
Filed under: Composers, Fun finds

A Verdi puzzle

Let's just start this blog by stating I am not a puzzle gal.

But on this 200th birthday of one of the greatest opera composers of all, Giuseppe Verdi, I couldn't resist sharpening my pencil and giving this commemorative Verdi puzzle by George Barany and Friends a try — and don't for a second think I'd use a pen!

SUPER clever, like a three-letter word for a Diva's defining feature or the act that brought the house down where other answers premiered — and maybe the only one I might consider answering in pen for 27-across: His troubles started with Weird Sisters and continued when his Lady needed a damn spot remover.

Happy Birthday, "Joe Green," and have at it!

(... and let me know how you did by leaving a comment below. Have fun!)


Guillaume de Machaut, a primer

Posted at 2:35 PM on September 18, 2012 by Emily Reese
Filed under: Choral Music, Composers

Guillaume de Machaut was born sometime around 1300 in Champagne. As is the case with so many medieval composers, and even beyond, no one knows his exact date of birth.

That means we never get to celebrate it.

So I wanted to share a song written by Machaut, called Rose, liz, printemps, verdure, performed by the Gothic Voices. Not only is this one of my favorite Machaut songs, it's one of my favorite pieces of music ever.

My ear is immediately drawn to the open harmony and the unusual cadences (endings of phrases). The cadences are, though, as they should be given the time period - it's just not how we're used to hearing phrases end.

For living in the 14th century, Machaut's music and poetry was well-preserved and cataloged. Although the majority of his music is secular, his mass, Messe de Nostre Dame, is the first extant copy of a composer's complete mass setting. Machaut's hundreds of poems tell tales of the Black Death, the French countryside, love and more.

Cage Apps

Posted at 11:41 AM on September 4, 2012 by Daniel Gilliam
Filed under: Composers

John Cage

September 5, 2012 marks the John Cage centennary. His contributions to music are remarkable, oft misunderstood and always captivating. One aspect of Cage's work I've always admired, is that anyone can perform something of his.

Now you can perform John Cage in the comfort (and safety) of your iPhone or tablet, with these two apps:

Developer Joseph Genden and Third Coast Percussion have released an app for the iPhone that allows you to perform Cage's Quartet. You can choose from the percussion instruments called for in the score, and perform your own version with digitized samples.

The official John Cage site has released an app for mobile and tablet, giving you fingertip access to the sounds of Cage's Prepared Piano. There is a free version, with access to more sounds and features in the paid version.

New DVD shines light on Mozart's Sister

Posted at 12:16 AM on February 14, 2012 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Composers, In the media

Hilary Hahn, Hélène Grimaud, Dawn Upshaw, Sarah Hicks, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Alison Balsom ... the list of female luminaries in classical music stretches endlessly. But there was a time in the history of classical music when most women would have been discouraged -- if not excluded outright -- from pursuing a musical career.

Mozart's Sister, a 2010 film by French director René Féret, explores one such story. Distributed by Chicago-based Music Box Films, Mozart's Sister gets released on DVD in the United States today.

Actress Marie FéretMozart's Sister re-imagines the story of Wolfgang's elder sister, Marie-Anne, familiarly known as Nannerl (and played by director Féret's daughter, Marie Féret). The film is loosely based on the Mozart family's 1770s visit to the royal court of France. Nannerl is known to have accompanied her younger brother in performances, and historic correspondence suggests Nannerl may have even composed music herself. Sadly, none of her compositions are known to exist today; in Mozart's Sister, writer/director Féret attempts to answer why that may be.

One explanation Féret offers is the sexism endemic to the 18th century. In a moving scene, Leopold Mozart (Marc Barbé), the father and music teacher of Wolfgang and Nannerl, offers composition lessons to his son but refuses his daughter's request for instruction. "You must know the rules of harmony and counterpoint," Leopold tells her dismissively. "These are beyond most people, especially women."

Despite her father's discouragement, the teenage Nannerl can't ignore her inexorable urge to compose; director Féret even suggests some of Wolfgang's works were actually penned by her. Féret also hazards a heartbreaking supposition as to why Nannerl's manuscripts have not survived. Nannerl's best friend in the film, a royal princess, offers scant consolation when she posits, "Imagine how different our destinies would have been had we been boys ... We would both reign."

Wolfgang and Nannerl MozartUltimately, the film is about a teenager struggling with her identity and her role in life in the face of the realities that surround her, which places Mozart's Sister on similar thematic ground as 2010's Winter's Bone. Certainly Nannerl enjoys much more love and security than Winter's Bone protagonist Ree, but her circumstances are no less crushing.

Variety described Mozart's Sister as "a treat for classical music lovers and cinephiles alike." Indeed, film fans will likely enjoy the period costumes and ornate sets (much of the film was shot on location at the Palace of Versailles).

For classical music lovers, the original music by Marie-Jeanne Séréro -- who bravely accepted the task of imagining how Nannerl Mozart's compositions may have sounded -- is certainly beguiling. And soprano Morgane Collomb, a student at the prestigious Académie Vocale de France, supplied the singing voice for actress Marie Féret. But the vocal dubs are obvious, as are the clearly pantomimed music-performance scenes. For a film so steeped in music, it's regrettable the musical sequences may elicit winces from classical aficionados.

Despite that vital shortcoming, Féret tells a compelling story that leaves viewers musing on the life and talents of Nannerl Mozart ... and what might have been.

The Short Version: Self Assessment

Posted at 2:16 PM on January 27, 2012 by ClassicalMPR (1 Comments)
Filed under: Composers, Ludwig van Beethoven

Any prolific composer could surprise us with how they rank their own works. Perhaps it's as simple and as compelling as "What have I done lately?" This 19th century Titan might have dismissed one of our favorites with, "That's so 1808."


Celestial Altercation

Posted at 6:30 AM on December 8, 2011 by Samuel Kjellberg (1 Comments)
Filed under: Composers, Concerts, Events, In the media, Musical philosophy

As we approach the coming of our special event this Friday, December 9th, the New York Polyphony Holiday Concert at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, we will take a look at an original work that was recently commissioned for and premiered by New York Polyphony this past November.

The work is titled Missa Charles Darwin, composed by American composer Gregory Brown and was set to text edited by New York Polyphony's bass Craig Phillips. You may think this title is counterproductive and contradictory, taking a structural paradigm of the Catholic faith and juxtaposing it with the principle text of evolutionary science. However, the piece seeks to exemplify the creativity and ingenuity of the human spirit, as well as portraying the unique position humans have within our reality.

Even though the composer claims this not to be a political statement, his purpose of exemplifying human language, human's curiosity into reality and its multi-functional viewpoints is certainly a spiritual and poetic one.

Under this light, this work could be considered one of the most important musical works of our time — perhaps not in a purely musical sense, but as a statement of cooperation among seemingly disagreeable mediums, between spiritual understanding and an understanding based on facts.

As humans we question the world, whether regarding the creation and meaning of our existence or to simply understand and grasp the world around us. This work shows that there is beauty in both the spiritual and the scientific and each can assist the other in the collective human effort to grasp and understand reality!

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