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Classical Notes

Category Archive: Musician stories

Music world reacts to Paris attack

Posted at 2:30 PM on January 7, 2015 by Fred Child (0 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Police forces gather in street outside the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday, after armed gunmen stormed the offices. (Martin Bereau AFP/Getty Images)

On tomorrow's Performance Today, we're broadcasting a concert recording from Paris, from a venue very close to today's Charlie Hebdo attack.

Musicians are among the millions around the world who have reacted with shock, anger, and in many cases, with new resolve to the Charlie Hebdo attack.

American cellist Alisa Weilerstein tweeted "Long Live Freedom of Speech." And she used the hashtag "#JeSuisCharlie." I am Charlie.

Italian conductor Enrique Mazzola lives and works in Paris. He tweeted "with all my heart near my friends in Paris."

The Martha Graham Dance company tweeted: "We stand in solidarity with artists from all over the world: for freedom of speech and expression. #jesuischarlie."

How should … and how CAN artists respond … to violence?

Three days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, conductor Leonard Bernstein wrote: "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."

And I'm reminded of a conversation I had recently with composer John Luther Adams. We talked about how artists respond to terrible events in the world.

He mentioned the great painter, Claude Monet. At the height of World War I, Monet retreated to the gardens of his home in the French countryside. Not simply as an escape: his own son was in the war. The front moved to within about 30 miles of the garden. But still — every day — Monet stepped outside … and painted water lilies. In full awareness of what was going on around him. Composer John Luther Adams picks up the story from there.

"He confided to a friend that he felt guilty pursuing his 'little studies,' as he put it, of form and color, while so many people were dying and suffering. The irony is that those last paintings of the water lilies were his greatest gift to a troubled world. So that spoke to me the imperative of art in our times … and in all times."

On behalf of each one of us at Performance Today: Je suis Charlie.


Rules are clarified for flying with instruments

Posted at 12:00 PM on January 2, 2015 by Luke Taylor (4 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

View while in flight (MPR photo/Luke Taylor)

This week, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a final rule to implement section 304 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 regarding the carriage of musical instruments as carry-on or checked baggage on commercial passenger flights. The rule was published on Dec. 29, 2014, and signed by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony R. Foxx; the rules go effective 60 days from that date.

According to the background information in the publication, Section 403 of the act already requires U.S. air carriers to accept musical instruments on flights as either checked or carry-on baggage, but acknowledges that musicians were encountering inconsistency while traveling. Members of the string ensemble Time for Three, for example, have experienced difficulties, as documented by violinist Nick Kendall and by bassist Ranaan Meyer. Other musicians, meanwhile, have brought instruments on board and have even performed while in flight.

To address all this, in July 2014, the DOT convened a "Flying with Musical Instruments" meeting to give airline representatives, musicians and government officials a way to share ideas about how to resolve challenges. The new ruling came out of those sessions.

Highlights of the new ruling include:

  • "… carriers must allow a passenger to carry into the cabin and stow a small musical instrument, such as a violin or guitar, in a suitable baggage compartment, such as the overhead bin or udner the seats in accordance with FAA safety regulations."

  • "For some musical instruments that are too large to fit in the cabin stowage areas … it is sometimes possible to secure them to a seat as 'seat baggage' or 'cargo in passenger cabin' … FAA safety regulations do not mandate that a carrier must allow in their carry-on baggage programs the stowage of a large carry-on item on a passenger seat … We do, however, encourage these carriers to consider modifying their programs to allow the stowage of large musical instruments at passenger seats, provided that all safety requirements are met."

  • "When assigning a seat that will be used to transport a musical instrument as cargo in the passenger cabin, carriers must not assign a seat where the instrument may obscure other passengers' view of safety signs that are required to remain visible."

  • "With respect to the cost to a passenger to transport a musical instrument on a passenger seat … carriers cannot charge the passenger more than the price of a ticket for the additional seat … However, this does not preclude carriers from charging standard ancillary service fees."

  • "… this rule requires carriers to accept musical instruments in the cargo compartment as checked baggage if those instruments comply with the size and weight limitations … we conclude that carriers may impose the same checked-baggage charges that apply to other checked baggage of that size and weight."

  • "The rule would require most covered carriers with specific policies about transportation of musical instruments to modify these policies to comply with the rule requirements; update written, electronic, and phone guidance provided to customers; and ensure that gate agents, flight crews, and baggage handlers are aware of these requirements."

The DOT publication also provides tips to musicians who are travelling with instruments; in particular, it encourages musicians who are hoping to travel with a carry-on instrument to arrive early for flights or even to pay for priority boarding on flights — especially since carry-on and on-board cargo space is offered on a first come, first-served basis.

Among the benefits of the new ruling, the DOT document states:

Beneficiaries of the rule would include professional and amateur musicians who travel with instruments, particularly large instruments that may be subject to more restrictive transportation limits under current carrier policies. Increased ability of these musicians to travel with their instruments could also potentially benefit owners and employees of establishments hosting musical events and people who attend events at which these musicians would be more likely to be able to play.

It also lists amateur musicians — particularly school musicians and music teachers — among the beneficiaries, as many school bands occasionally travel.

Airlines may experience some costs due to training staff people and updating printed and online documentation about the policies; the DOT document estimates those total industry costs to be "about $732,000."

In response to the new DOT publication, the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM), AFL-CIO, issued this statement on Dec. 31, 2014:

"We applaud the efforts of Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and our AFM allies in Congress for the new administrative ruling on the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012," states AFM International President Ray Hair. "For many years, AFM members have been subject to very arbitrary and contradictory size and weight requirements imposed by each airline for musical instruments that are carried on board the airplane or checked as baggage. Airlines will now follow a consistent policy for all musicians traveling with instruments."

What are your thoughts on the new rules? Will they affect you? If you travel with an instrument, do you expect air travel to change for you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


Vanska and Keefe announce engagement

Posted at 12:50 PM on December 24, 2014 by Emily Reese (1 Comments)
Filed under: Musician stories, Osmo Vanska

Erin Keefe and Osmo Vänskä (photos by Lisa Marie Mazzucco and Eric Moore)

Heartwarming news for the holidays from two members of the Minnesota Orchestra: According to their personal Facebook accounts, Music Director Osmo Vänskä and Concertmaster Erin Keefe are engaged to be married.

We look forward to hearing more beautiful music from the Minnesota Orchestra in the coming year. Our next Minnesota Orchestra broadcast is Friday, Jan. 16, at 8 p.m., when Vänskä conducts a Future Classics concert.


Flying with instruments is touch and go

Posted at 6:00 AM on November 20, 2014 by Valerie Kahler (1 Comments)
Filed under: Musician stories

Time for Three (Neilson Barnard)

Whenever there's a news story about a musician who has experienced trouble getting on a plane with his or her instrument, someone usually asks me if I've ever had a problem flying with my cello.

I'm happy (?) to report that I don't have a $100,000 instrument and don't play for a living, so I can put my virtually-indestructible carbon-fiber "travel" cello into a beat-up case with a bunch of padding (old beach towels), send it through as checked baggage, and restring it upon landing.

Professional musicians with precious instruments don't have that luxury. Add to that the confusing lack of consistency between airlines; the choices seem to be:

  • Buy an extra seat.

  • Don't buy an extra seat — carry it on.

  • Pack it in a travel case and check it.

But … what works with one airline doesn't necessarily work with the next; for example, the Strad reports on the latest travel blues experienced by the ensemble Time for Three:

US Airways has once again denied access to a member of string ensemble Time for Three with his instrument. Double Bassist Ranaan Meyer (pictured) was told by the airline's supervisor and shift manager at Los Angeles International Airport that he would not be permitted to fly home to Philadelphia with his bass after appearing on television show 'Dancing with the Stars' on Monday night.

After being told he would not be on the flight, Meyer posted this message to YouTube:

Fortunately, Meyer was eventually able to get home:

Do you travel with an instrument? What challenges have you faced? Any advice to share? Post in the comments section below.


Watch out for flying bow

Posted at 11:30 AM on November 15, 2014 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

Violinist Nicola Benedetti (courtesy the artist)

While rehearsing Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, violinist Nicola Benedetti's bow flipped out of her hand.

Benedetti took it in stride and with a good sense of humor; she shared the video (embedded below) on her social media channels, sharing this comment on her Facebook page:

"Whoops! Little accident before tonight's performance. All is well with the bow though, don't worry! Nicky"

Given her commitment to music education, it stands to reason Benedetti would have no problem sharing a little blunder like this with her fans.

Benedetti and the RSNO perform in concert tonight, Saturday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m. Minnesota time) at the Royal Glasgow Concert Hall.

Here's that 10-second blooper from the rehearsal:

Joshua Bell brings music to Union Station once again

Posted at 9:00 AM on October 1, 2014 by Fred Child
Filed under: Events, In the media, Musician stories

Remember this 2007 story that got everyone talking (albeit briefly) about classical music? Violinist Joshua Bell played incognito at a Metro station in Washington, D.C., during rush hour, in an "experiment" designed by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten:

Commuters brushed past one of the great musicians of our time — he was almost universally ignored — and Weingarten's WaPo story won a Pulitzer Prize.

On Tuesday this week, Joshua Bell got a do-over of sorts, playing a well-publicized event in the main hall of Washington, D.C.'s Union Station … and several thousand folks showed up. There are more details here from PBS's News Hour.

Said Bell to the crowd: "This is more like it!"

Yukie Ota, 'Madame Butterfly', takes 2nd place at Nielsen Competition

Posted at 2:30 PM on September 22, 2014 by Fred Child (1 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

First-prize winner Sébastian Jacot: "I didn't even think about winning … I have never won a competition or audition." (photo courtesy DR.dk)

Yukie Ota (she of the butterfly landing on her forehead during the first round, currently Principal Flute in the Kalamazoo Symphony) took second place this weekend at the Carl Nielsen Flute Competition in Copenhagen.

First place went to Sébastian Jacot, a 27-year-old Swiss flutist, who had his own adventures in the first round: Two hours before he played, part of his wooden flute broke. Jacot used his back-up … and prevailed.

Read more about first-place finisher Sébastian Jacot in this story by Anne Termanson.


No serenity means no Muti for Rome Opera

Posted at 1:30 PM on September 21, 2014 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Conductor Riccardo Muti

The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that Riccardo Muti has resigned as the regular lead conductor of the Rome Opera after ongoing funding, management and labor issues have continued unresolved.

In his resignation letter, Muti wrote he will not be conducting planned productions of Verdi's Aida or Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, the Sun-Times' Andrew Patner reports.

"There are no conditions [there] to ensure the serenity necessary to my leading successful productions," Muti wrote, according to the Italian national news service ANSA Sunday.

"Unfortunately, despite all my efforts to contribute to your cause," Muti wrote, problems of state and city funding, management authority and labor peace "have emerged [again] in just the last few days."

Muti said that he would dedicate his time "in Italy" instead to the Luigi Cherubini Orchestra that he founded for young professional musicians in his homeland.

The Naples-born conductor, 73, said he had reached the decision "with the greatest regret, after long and troubled reflection."

Muti continues as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a role he has held since 2010. The CSO just began its new season this past week.

'Butterfly' flutist makes finals in flute competition

Posted at 9:50 AM on September 20, 2014 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Concerts, Film, Musician stories

Yukie Ota, the flutist who earned worldwide attention and widespread admiration for her poise in a performance at the 2014 Carl Nielsen Flute Competition in Copenhagen — during which a butterfly landed on her brow — has made the finals in that very same flute competition.

According to Performance Today host Fred Child, Ota is Principal Flutist in the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. And just now was named as one of three finalists at the Nielsen Competition.

Finals and announcement of winners happens Saturday, Sept. 20.

You can watch the three finalists' performances live online, which will stream on the competition's website.

The finals begin at 7 p.m. in Copenhagen, which is 12 noon Central Daylight Time.

VIDEO: A classical-music take on the 'butterfly effect'

Posted at 12:45 PM on September 17, 2014 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

A video making the rounds in classical music circles today is this video from the Carl Nielsen International Flute Competition in Odense, Denmark, in which Japanese-born, Chicago-based flutist Yukie Ota remains nearly unflappable throughout her performance, even as a butterfly lands right on her face and remains there, repeatedly flapping its wings, for some time during Ota's performance:

Classical MPR host Alison Young, a former professional flutist, watched the video and had this comment:

"Oddly beautiful and almost sublime that at that particular moment in the music, a perfect little creature would not only land, but decide to stay for a while, on Ms. Ota's face. It's almost mesmerizing to an observer, but the distraction must have been close to unbearable for the performer. Clearly this young virtuoso practiced well, has unshakeable focus and even a sense of humor! She won my heart when she crossed her eyes for a split second to get a clue as to what was up, then made a slight movement to shake off her visitor, followed by simply leaning into the moment until the she could push him aside. Her wry smile at the audience was precious. Good luck, Ms. Ota!!!"

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury may have inspired the expression "the butterfly effect" with his short story "A Sound of Thunder," but this is far from what he had in mind.

As for the effect the butterfly had on Ota? As you can see from the video and as Alison points out, virtually none.

(h/t Jeff Esworthy)

Stephen Hough's tasty tweets

Posted at 2:00 PM on July 25, 2014 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

Stephen Hough in concert (photo by Hiroyuki Ito)

In addition to being one of the world's leading concert pianists, Stephen Hough is a talented composer and a gifted writer.

It also turns out that this true renaissance man loves food and he tweets about it often. Many times the food items are connected to places and to people Hough is visiting.

Here's a sampling of menu items Stephen Hough has shared via Twitter (where you can follow him @houghhough).

3D Tactile Stave Notation

Posted at 9:56 AM on May 13, 2014 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Education, In the media, Musician stories

Yeaji Kim's fingers dance across the piano keys with the grace and precision one would expect from such a highly accomplished pianist.

Kim, who was born with limited vision and has been completely without sight since age 13, has faced difficulty when discussing printed scores at an advanced level with her sighted teachers. Braille scores didn't quite bridge the gap, with teacher and student often needing to interpret for one another. And the ability to discuss music at a high level is vital to Kim; she's pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Music.

On a Wordpress site that describes Kim's studies, UW-Madison Professor Todd Welbourne says, "Blind pianists in the classical world need braille to succeed. They don't get very far learning things by ear."

But Braille has its limits. According to the same site, Professor Welbourne says there are some important musical elements that don't translate well in Braille, e.g. timing, piano pedal markings and other performance notation.

That's why Kim has worked to develop a method of teaching music that works for teachers and students alike, regardless of sight. It's the basis of her doctoral thesis, which she'll complete this month.

Here's a video that describes Kim's project, which was brought to our attention by our friends at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra:

Read more about Kim's project — as well as details about her life as a performer and a profile of her service dog, Chan Mi — on this dedicated Wordpress site.

Yo-Yo Ma's 'Playhouse'

Posted at 9:26 AM on March 26, 2014 by Brett Baldwin
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

I've always imagined Yo-Yo Ma to be a fun-loving guy. From his photo op with a wombat to his inspired modern dance collaborations, Ma seems to be a guy willing to go the extra mile in the name of art, or simply having a good time.

NPR Music's latest Field Recordings video does both: art + a good time.

From Anastasia Tsioulcas, writer and piece producer:

When you're lucky enough to have cellist Yo-Yo Ma and members of the Silk Road Ensemble, some of the world's premiere instrumentalists and composers, gather for an afternoon of offstage music making, you've got to think long and hard about where to put them. And we decided that the perfect match would be ACME Studio, a theatrical props warehouse in Brooklyn.

And if that weren't enough, there are some fun animated GIFs from the session too.

If you had the afternoon to spend with Yo-Yo Ma, what would you do?

A violinist and her dog

Posted at 6:00 AM on February 12, 2014 by Fred Child
Filed under: Awards & Accomplishments, Fun finds, Musician stories

Violinist Ida Kavafian has been raising Viszlas (Hungarian hunting dogs) for years. She's a regular at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show every February at Madison Square Garden. This year one of her beloved pooches won "Best of Opposite Sex" (which goes to the best female if a male wins best of breed, as happened this year).

Her dog is officially named Brittania N Bayviews Ida One (although...I'm sure they have a cute nickname for her!). Here's a picture from yesterday at Madison Square Garden, with Ida Kavafian holding the ribbon.

Ida Kavafian and her prize-winning dog


(And btw, Ida's husband is Steven Tenenbom, violist in the Orion String Quartet. He's as much into the family dogs as Ida...)

Helene Grimaud howls for wolf conservation

Posted at 12:00 PM on November 14, 2013 by Jay Gabler
Filed under: Musician stories

This week on Performance Today, you're hearing the beautiful music of French pianist Hélène Grimaud. In addition to being a top-notch musician, Grimaud has made a reputation as an outspoken advocate for a conservation-related cause of particular interest to Minnesotans.

Jason Eades of Superior, Wisc. (right) and Jamie Petite of Cloquet, Minn. protest Minnesota's wolf hunt in downtown Duluth on Oct. 12, 2013. (MPR Photo/Dan Kraker)

Wolf Hunt.jpg

In 1999, Grimaud co-founded a conservation center for wolves in Westchester County, New York. A 2011 New Yorker profile of Grimaud awkwardly draws a parallel between the artist's fondness for wolves and her musical career ("Wolves form packs with well-defined jobs, and their members are coöperative and hierarchical, like the players in an orchestra [...] Grimaud said that she saw herself as a beta in the music world") but also explains the genesis of her interest in wolves, tracing it to a friendship she formed with a man who kept a wolf--or perhaps a wolf-dog hybrid--as a pet.

In 2012, gray wolves in Minnesota were removed from the endangered species list, and sport hunting resumed soon thereafter; in the 2012 wolf season, hunters and trappers in Minnesota killed 413 wolves. Despite vigorous opposition from groups opposed to the wolf hunt, a 2013 season has already begun.

Grimaud's Wolf Conservation Center is among the organizations opposing wolf hunts. A recent newsletter stakes the center's position:

Gray wolves were persecuted so heavily in the past that by the mid-1900's, most lands in the lower 48 were emptied of their top predator. With the support of the American public and the ESA, however, the wolf was able to return to portions of its native range. In areas where wolves were restored, like the northern Rocky Mountains and western Great Lakes states, scientists have noted more diverse plant and wildlife thriving where they had been suppressed for decades. The ESA gave wolves and balanced ecosystems a hard-won second chance. Should we be willing to throw it away?

Hélène Grimaud is just one example of a classical musician taking a stand on issues beyond the concert stage. What do you think? Do you agree with this pianist and conservationist about wolf hunting, or do you disagree? Do musicians' views on extra-musical issues affect the way you listen to their music?

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:

Farewell, Osmo

Posted at 10:47 AM on October 7, 2013 by Emily Reese (1 Comments)
Filed under: Musician stories, Osmo Vanska

Osmo Vanska portrait by Eric MooreOsmo Vänskä. Photo by Eric Moore

I was there Saturday afternoon for the 2:00 performance. It seemed like half of Classical MPR was there. I guess the other half was there that night for the 8:00 show.

These were the final performances of the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra with Osmo Vänskä at the helm.

First of all, I have a pretty great job. I get to talk about classical music all the time. On top of that, I get to do a music-appreciation show, and a show about video-game music.

And I used to work regularly with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Before the lockout, Classical MPR broadcast the Minnesota Orchestra subscription concerts live Friday nights.

A major component of those broadcasts included interview clips from the conductor (whether it was Osmo or a guest) and the soloist. Although Brian Newhouse hosted those broadcasts, I did the interviews in advance, usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays.

List any accomplishment of my career, and this was my favorite task. I loved going to Orchestra Hall each week or so. And while it is thrilling to speak to the likes of Andrew Litton, Jean-Yves Thibaudet or Midori, it was always a delight to speak with Osmo.

Every time I pulled up to Orchestra Hall, it felt like Christmas day. I got to walk in the stage door, where some of the best musicians in the world hung out. Sometimes, I got to listen to them rehearse. I never would've made it to Orchestra Hall as a trumpet player, but somehow, I'd managed to get there without my instrument.

The excitement never waned.

The first time I met Osmo, it was clear why he and the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have such a love affair. I could see the fondness — and respect — he has for them in his eyes, and I could hear it in his voice. He spoke with equal warmth about the music.

And then you saw them onstage together. Conductor and orchestra. They danced the most beautiful dance only an orchestra can create. They played as if they wanted to impress each other, but in the way you want to impress someone you love dearly by making them breakfast in bed or bringing them flowers.

The word 'impress' isn't even the right word — it was more like an eagerness to share. The best of friends — the kind of friendship that feels like family.

It's why I've wept over this loss. Many of us have. It's unbearable to imagine how the musicians and Osmo feel. For nine years, it was a dream come true.

We'll miss you, Osmo. Thank you for coming here.


The State Fair Singers!

Posted at 12:00 PM on August 22, 2012 by Samuel Kjellberg (1 Comments)
Filed under: Choral Music, Events, Musician stories

It is understood that Minnesota holds a very strong grip on the world of choral music, both nationally and internationally. With our world-renown professional and collegiate choirs, fabulous public school programs, and choirs with a message we have carved our name in choral history. We live in a special place, and it is our depth that is so remarkable.

Here at Classical MPR we have made an official commitment to the choral community in Minnesota. We started by creating an on-line choral stream with hours and hours of non-stop choral music from around the world. We will bring to the Twin Cities the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the King's College Choir (Cambridge), and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir with a commission by Edie Hill. In the future we will continue to nurture that relationship by creating collaborative programming and content.

This summer at the State Fair Classical MPR thought, given our choral initiative, that it would be appropriate to incorporate several vocal acts, including VocalEssence, the Minnesota Boychoir, and members of the Minnesota Opera. But something was missing...so when I was approached by Brian Newhouse and Daniel Gilliam at MPR to discuss other ensembles to incorporate, I responded immediately with the idea of a young-adult chamber choir. They asked, "Does anything like that exist?" Knowing of nothing I said, "No, but I will create it."

And so here we are, The State Fair Singers with me, Sam Kjellberg, the aspiring conductor. We will sing a short program of music by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and a short hymn by the great Thomas Tallis. It's a simple concept – young-adults between the ages of 22 and 27 singing together, all coming from fabulous collegiate choral programs – Concordia (Moorhead), Luther, Saint Olaf, the University of Minnesota, and Yale. This project has been the seed to something we hope to continue through the next several years, or until we're too old to be considered "young-adults." (...but "youth" is a mindset, right?...)

The name seems a little narrow and constraining, and in some ways it is, but even with the name attached, this group has hopes of being a symbolic gesture for the future of choral music and classical music in general. It is my opinion that Classical Music must focus on keeping its youthful vigor and innovation alive and well. I hope that ensembles with this sort of youthful energy, determination, and initiative will continue to be heralded for years to come!

Come at check us out at the State Fair!!!
August 27-29th, 2-3pm
September 3, 2-3pm

All at the Minnesota Public Radio booth on the corner of Judson and Nelson!


Local ensemble finishing new CD this summer

Posted at 6:00 AM on July 10, 2012 by Luke Taylor
Filed under: Musician stories

Record-breaking heat has pushed many Minnesotans indoors this summer, and the members of Minneapolis-based The Copper Street Brass Quintet have found refuge in the studio as they work on their new album. "We still have just a couple of tracks to go in and record," says trumpet player Allison Hall. "In August, we're going to finish the editing, do the mastering, do the packaging — we do all of that ourselves."

The Copper Street Brass Quintet
The Copper Street Brass Quintet, (top, L to R:) Tim Bradley, Alex Wolff, Nick Adragna; (bottom, L to R:) Allison Hall, Ed Hong. Photo courtesy The CSBQ.

The as-yet-untitled CD is the ensemble's fourth release and third full-length album. Notably, it will be the quintet's first fully classical album, and it features works by Wagner, Dvořák, Mozart, Debussy, Brahms and others. All of the arrangements are originals by CSBQ horn player Tim Bradley, and all feature the full quintet with occasional solo pieces by each instrument.

The most ambitious sequence on the album is a resetting of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn. "It was a pretty big undertaking for Tim," Hall says. "The arrangement is the full orchestral score of the entire piece reduced for five brass, so it was a really challenging piece to prepare. We had to spend a lot of time working on getting the less idiomatic string and woodwind figures just right on brass."

Adhering to its adventuresome spirit, the quintet attempted to partially fund the new record with a Kickstarter campaign. The effort failed to meet its June 30 goal, but Hall chalks it up as a learning experience:

"We're really confident that there will be a strong interest in the CD," she says, "but I think what we found and what we realized once we got into the Kickstarter campaign is that a lot of the individuals who will be interested in this type of a CD are not necessarily the kind of people who are on Facebook and Twitter. A Kickstarter campaign wasn't a good way to reach them.

"We had been planning to make this album for at least a year, so it wasn't like [Kickstarter] was where the funding was going to come from. It was something that we hadn't done before and we wanted to take a chance and try it. It's probably something we'll do again, but probably for different programs that we run, like some of our educational programming."

Although the ensemble hopes to make the new album available for purchase by late summer, its CD-release concert will take place Thursday, Oct. 4, at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater in Minneapolis.

Besides working on the album, The CSBQ will host its summer brass camp for teens at MacPhail Center for Music in late July, then venture outdoors on Tuesday, Aug. 7, to play the block party on 4500 Oakland Avenue South in Minneapolis on National Night Out. "[The concert] is open to anyone, not just those who live on that block," Hall says. "It will be a fun, summertime outdoor concert with a big mix of music -- mostly pops and stuff, but a little bit of everything. Hopefully the weather will be nice!"

The Liberating Invitation from the Artworld

Posted at 1:55 PM on January 26, 2012 by Samuel Kjellberg
Filed under: Concerts, Events, In the media, Musical philosophy, Musician stories, The blog

"With its stylization and its larger-than-life emotions, opera has never been about unbroken narrative or cinematic realism. It is about going in and out of the drama, in and out of realism." (Zachary Woolfe, New York Observer; October 5, 2011)

To bridge the gap, to break through the translucent historical and pedestal'd barrier between the stage and the commonplace, is seen as something of a taboo in the classical world. As an artistic audience, we don't know how to handle incorporation and conversation with the stage world, the world of moral fragility, the world of the dilemma that pries us from any comfortable choice, a world perfect in its scenarios. We like to sit cozy, knowing that these experiences are at a distance, thinking that the stage world couldn't possibly portray our own daily experience and struggle with the world, meaning and purpose... But it does.

By all of this I simply mean the act of breaking character on stage, a small aside or reaction that emerges from within the production and addresses the outside world. Throughout history there has been disdain circling this issue.

Recently, Metropolitan operatic star René Pape, while acting the role of Méphistophélès (the Devil) in Charles Gounod's Faust, broke character by parting with the French language and addressed the audience with an aside in English.

Let me paint the picture: It is Act 4, a scene in Marguerite's garden. She has just sung the famous "Jewel Song" after having received a box covered in jewels, which happened to have been from Faust through Méphistophélès, who is helping Faust gain the love of Marguerite. After Marguerite's aria Faust and Méphistophélès reenter the stage and begin their recitative. Amid one of his French sighs Méphistophélès (played by René Pape) turns to the audience and says, in English, "Diamonds are a girl's best friend." The laughter that followed seemed strained with an underlying current of judgment.

You can see how this would outrage the public, and it did. The concern is duly noted and understandable; classical art should not be tampered with or tarnished. However, allow me to play the part of Méphistophélès's attorney for a moment (Devil's advocate, if I may).

The living aesthetician, Arthur C. Danto, rocked the art world in 1981 with the publication of his book "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art." The mission, as the subtitle suggests, was to create a philosophy of art, which he thought, up to that point, had been slightly ambiguous and undefined. (Claim to fame: That the history of art is finished. A disturbing statement likened to Nietzsche's "God is dead. And we have killed him".)

His book was a reaction to the history of art, which in the decades previous to its publication brought what some might consider strange artistic developments and freedoms. He philosophically addresses these controversial pieces of art, namely Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" (a urinal with "R. Mutt 1917" written on it), Andy Warhol's "Brillo Boxes" (a stack of boxes with the logo of the Brillo soap pad brand), among other Avant Garde works.


The pinnacle example is a short, passionate dialogue regarding the statue of a cat that was located in a rotunda on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. For a long time this statue sat there, unmoved, sitting near a staircase. He passed this everyday with little notice. However, one day as Danto walked by he noticed that the statue had been freshly chained to the stair case railing. This provided him a door into the question of where the artworld line is drawn and the ambiguity of the border between art and commonplace.

For Danto, the chained cat could have meant one of two things: an attempt to counteract possible burglaries of the statue, or an attempt by the artist to gift some morsel of artworld status into and onto the commonplace. He chose the latter.

Like the chain, the broken character is an invitation to incorporate the audience in the artistic experience, as a way for the actor to connect their own character to the audience as if to say, "Yes, I am here with you. Let us see the world together. Isn't this fascinating?"

Of course, it is easy to say that when an actor breaks character they are breaking the tradition and sanctity of that particular artwork. However, under the Dantonian lens it seems that the breaking of one's character truly is an invitation for involvement, an acceptance between the audience and the artist, a most liberating and inclusive characteristic of art.

Art speaks on behalf of culture, it follows our desires and passions, opening doors, and with such an invitation we as an audience are transcendent up and into the artworld, living, breathing and drinking every morally fragile theme.

CSI: Minnesota?

Posted at 3:44 PM on November 30, 2011 by Samuel Kjellberg
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Stradivarius Recreate.jpg

Radiologist Dr. Steve Sirr has been using the process of medical forensics scanning to record and analyze stringed instruments for close to 22 years now. But recently, Dr. Sirr has teamed up with St. Paul luthiers Steve Rossow and John Waddle of John Waddle Violins Inc. to use the radiology process of CT scanning and analyzing to recreate one of the world's most famed violins, the 1704 "Betts" Stradivarius.

In essence, this is a cloning process. Like DNA, a violin can be scanned and analyzed for its physical structure — shape, density, wood type, etc. — and with that knowledge, specialists can essentially recreate any violin.

Setting aside all fantastical images of cloning we see from the sci-fi films, we need to know that these are not exact copies. The replicas are not time-traveled and perfectly molded, but are modern instruments that take into consideration the luthier techniques, shape, style and wood type of the famed violins throughout history.

All instruments leave fingerprints and a bread crumb trail. Like crime scene investigators, the scanning process exposes that history and tells the unique and individual story of each of these instruments. The methods can then be used to ensure the preservation process of these remarkable instruments.

While you further your reading, what I might challenge you to keep in mind are the implications of what may come from this ongoing project. Prior to this point in scientific history, the highest quality violins, namely those in the Stradivarius catalog, have been reserved for the extremely wealthy or the musically accomplished that can be financially supported in obtaining them.

What Dr. Steve Sirr, Steve Rossow and John Waddle have done is narrow the gap of accessibility to quality. They are offering replicas of world-class instruments at more affordable prices that will empower and enrich the playing of young beginners and amateurs.

ERIN KEEFE: New Minnesota Orchestra Concertmaster

Posted at 9:25 AM on September 22, 2011 by John Birge
Filed under: Concerts, Events, Musician stories

After a two-year search, the Minnesota Orchestra announced today that American violinist Erin Keefe will be the orchestra's new concertmaster.

Keefe was born in Massachussettes in 1980, studied at Curtis and Juilliard, and is a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

She begins officially as concertmaster right away, at the Orchestra's season opening concerts September 29 to October 1. Her September 30 concert will be broadcast live on Classical MPR. Meanwhile, here's Erin talking about her life as a musician, and playing a gorgeous Sibelius Romance:

Minnesota Varsity Student Wins Miss Brainerd Lakes

Posted at 4:45 PM on August 22, 2011 by Hans Buetow
Filed under: Awards & Accomplishments, Musician stories

Rebecca Yeh.jpg

This past June, Rebecca Yeh was crowned Miss Brainerd Lakes as a part of the Miss Minnesota Education Foundation, the official preliminary to the Miss America Pageant.

You might remember Rebecca for her stunning performance of the Adagio from J.S. Bach's Violin Sonata No. 1 as a Featured Round performer for Minnesota Varsity this past spring. A wonderful musical talent, Rebecca left this past weekend for her freshman year at Ohio Northern University as a pharmacy major.

Before she left, I had a chance to talk with Rebecca about the competition, her plans, and her music.

Classical MPR: Have you done any pageant competitions before?

Rebecca Yeh: The Miss Brainerd Lakes pageant was the first pageant I competed in. I attended the pageant in 2010 and thought that I would have a great shot at it this year. Coming from a musical background and with my accomplishments as a violinist, I felt that I would have a lot to offer to the title of Miss Brainerd Lakes.

The Miss Brainerd Lakes Pageant is a part of the Miss America Organization that requires a talent and a personal platform, which really gives more depth to the program aside from being judged like a typical "beauty pageant".

MPR: What repertoire did you play in the competition?

RY. For my talent performance, I played Vieuxtemp's Souvenir D'Amerique Yankee Doodle Variations. The piece starts out with a very serious, almost uninviting opening, which eventually sneaks into the theme of Yankee Doodle. The reaction from the audience is always enjoyable, as they are surprised recognize the tune.

MPR: What will you be doing as Miss Brainerd Lakes for the coming year?

RY. So far, I have been able to travel to other local pageants as visiting royalty. I have also been part of parades in the Brainerd Lakes Area, as well as community events throughout the summer. In addition, I have had the opportunity to speak at service organizations such as the local rotaries.

At the local level of pageant competition, the main goal is to promote my platform, and prepare for the Miss Minnesota Pageant next June. During my breaks at home, I will have the opportunity to visit my community and participate in as many events as possible. My platform is named, "A Voice for Autism", inspired by my 20-yr-old brother, Philip, who has pervasive developmental disorder under the spectrum of autism. Being crowned June 25th, I am in the process of developing my platform so that I am able to make real, tangible changes, not only in my brother's life, but in the lives of other people with autism. My hopes are that I can integrate my music with my experience with autism, to create programs and bring awareness to autism spectrum disorders. I have had the opportunity to visit summer programs for autistic students and perform familiar pieces for them, while telling them about myself and taking questions. It has been amazing to see the effects even the simplest music can have on the relaxation and calmness of some students. I am hoping that by the time Miss MN comes around, I will have had opportunities to reach out and use the honor of being Miss Brainerd Lakes to help these people.

MPR: How did it feel to win?

RY: Winning the pageant was such an honor. I had put a lot of work into my preparation for that day. What many people don't realize is that the pageant itself is a small peek at the journey of growth each of the contestant's experiences. The interview portion of the pageant occurs off-stage, before the night of the pageant. Through months of mock interviewing and staying aware of my current events, I began to develop and communicate my viewpoints in society, culture and politics. In addition, the judging of the pageant looks at all areas of the contestant: physical fitness, public speaking, academics, and talent. Winning all categories of competition (swimsuit, evening gown, talent, and interview), I was honored and elated that my preparation had been well worth it.

Minnesota Varsity students perform a Random Act of Culture

Posted at 12:18 PM on June 2, 2011 by Hans Buetow (1 Comments)
Filed under: Events, Musician stories

Xavier and Austin.JPG

On Thursday, May 26th, if you were in Downtown Saint Paul around lunchtime, maybe headed across the Skyway bridge over 6th Street to the food court in the Alliance Bank Center, you would have come across two young buskers playing guitar. Except, as you got closer, you would have realized that both their cases were closed. Then, if you listened, you would have heard that they were good. And I mean really good.

Welcome to a Random Act of Culture, a grant initiative sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. These acts echo the Knight Foundation's efforts to "help weave the arts into the very fabric of a community" by putting the arts into public spaces free of charge, available to anyone and everyone who happens upon them. "For those brief moments," says Knight Foundation Vice President Dennis Scholl, "people going along in their everyday lives are part of a shared, communal experience that makes their community a more vibrant place to live."

The two young guitarists, Austin Wahl and Xavier Jara, were participating in Random Acts through their connection with The Schubert Club, where they have both been 1st prize winners of the Bruce P. Carlson Student Scholarship Competition in 2010 and 2009, respectively.

More recently, both Austin and Xavier participated in Minnesota Varsity, a project from Minnesota Public Radio that showcases high school musical talent throughout Minnesota. Austin, who was selected as a Showcase Artist and performed at the Fitzgerald Theater on April 17th, 2011, and Xavier, who was a Featured Artist, have been playing guitar together for years.

Sitting cross-legged in the skyway, the two soon-to-be-graduating high-schoolers played beautifully as old friends, laughing and sometimes chatting while they played. Past them streamed a steady line of lunch-goers and noontime downtowners. Some surprised individuals would stop and listen before continuing on, maybe snapping a few photos on their phones. When asked how long the duo was scheduled to perform, Austin just grinned and said, "as long as we want."

The Schubert Club is only one of the organizations affiliated with The Arts Partnership, the group overseeing the grant. Over the coming weeks and months, in public spaces across the city, you might also stumble upon performances by resident artists from the Minnesota Opera, musicians of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, or resident performance companies of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

For videos and information about Random Acts of Culture, visit www.randomactsofculture.org.


Cyril Harris: he put the cubes in Orchestra Hall

Posted at 1:23 PM on January 9, 2011 by John Birge
Filed under: Musician stories

The New York Times reports that Cyril Harris died Tuesday, age 93.

He's the man who put the cubes in the walls and ceiling of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.

orch hall.jpg

Harris was an acoustical engineer who created the sound of hundreds of concert halls, theaters and auditoriums, including Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, the Metropolitan Opera and Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in NY, all three theaters at the Kennedy Center, Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City, Powell Hall in St. Louis, and Benaroya Hall in Seattle. With the coming year-long closure and renovation of Orchestra Hall in 2011-12, we hope that Cyril Harris' marvelous acoustics will remain untouched!

You can read the complete obit here.

Classical Music Busking

Posted at 3:35 PM on January 3, 2011 by Elena See
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

It seems like it's not an unfamiliar news story these days: a musician (sometimes famous, sometimes not) sets up shop in a public place, usually near some kind of public transit, opens his or her (or their) case and starts to play. Some of them do it for money, some of them just do it to do it and some music students do it for practice.

Cellist Dale Henderson is the latest in the series of musicians who have been profiled in news articles. His area of choice? The subway system of NYC. And his music of choice? "I could sit alone on top of a mountaintop playing the Bach suites and be happy. They're like the Bible for cellists," he said.

So, I know it's something we've probably all read about before...but on this snowy January day in St. Paul, it just really felt like an encouraging story to share - classical music is alive and well in the world! And you don't have to go to a concert hall to hear it.

Billy Taylor, in Memoriam

Posted at 2:19 PM on December 29, 2010 by John Birge
Filed under: Musician stories

Billy Taylor died yesterday. He would have been 90 years young in July.

As the New York Times obituary affirms, he was so much more than a jazz pianist and composer. He was also a teacher, television producer, civil rights activist, friend to Dr. Martin Luther King. He was also a jazz disc jockey who helped keep the peace in New York City in the wake of MLK's assassination.

Birge_Taylor_Concert_Conversation small.JPG

I had the honor of talking with Billy Taylor in 2009 when he came to Minnesota to perform on the annual VocalEssence "Witness" concert. We had a pre-concert public conversation in the Ordway lobby. Billy also shared his fascinating story on the radio with MPR's Euan Kerr. You can hear that interview again here.

Taylor_Birge small.JPG

And enjoy Billy at his best -- at the piano -- here:

Artist of the Year

Posted at 2:36 PM on December 27, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Awards & Accomplishments, Musician stories

This week, we're airing Beethoven, as interpreted by Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra--including, tonight, their brand-new "Emperor" Concerto, with pianist Yevgeny Sudbin.

And by a nice coincidence, the Star Tribune just named Vanska their Artist of the Year.

Caroling Caroling through the ages

Posted at 8:53 AM on December 20, 2010 by John Birge
Filed under: Events, In the media, Musician stories

Yesterday morning Philip Brunelle, director of the VocalEssence chorus in Minneapolis, was on NPR's Weekend Edition talking with host Liane Hansen about Christmas carols.
Where did Christmas carols come from? How did they start? And how have they evolved?
Here's a link to their conversation.

And tune in tonight at 8:30p to hear Philip Brunelle conduct VocalEssence in the annual "Welcome Christmas!" concert. It's a tribute to the great composer John Rutter. Here's VocalEssence singing one of Rutter's most famous carols:

A Very New York Story

Posted at 1:47 PM on December 8, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Musician stories

As the world remembers John Lennon today, I thought I'd pass on an anecdote I read online.

It's from the blog of radio host Christopher Purdy, and "Mr. Downes" is Edward Downes, who for decades had been the host of the Metropolitan Opera Quiz.

I want to tell you a story about the Dakota, where Mr. Downes lives at the very top, just above Yoko Ono, who can look from her window down on the strawberry fields she planted in memory of her husband, John Lennon, in Central Park.

When the Lennons wanted to move into the Dakota, the management told them that they first had to have a recommendation from someone already in residence. So the world famous Beatle phoned Mr. Downes and said, "We're musicians, too. Do you think you could recommend us?"

Mr. Downes explained, "Well, I'm not really acquainted with your work. But why don't you come over next Tuesday? We can meet, have tea, and perhaps then I can recommend you."

The Lennons said they would, and Mr. Downes promptly phoned his niece, of the newer generation, and said, "Dear, there are two young musicians coming to see me, and I'd feel much more comfortable with them if you were here and poured tea."

"Of course, Uncle Edward" came the reply. "Who are they?"
" I think he said his name was Lennon."

All the niece could say was, with some disappointment at her uncle's innocence, "Oh, Uncle Edward!"

Nearly Half a Century for Minnesota Orchestra and Messiah

Posted at 2:03 PM on December 7, 2010 by Ward Jacobson (3 Comments)
Filed under: Events, Fun finds, Musician stories

For the 45th consecutive year, the Minnesota Orchestra presents Handel's oratorio, Messiah this week. Three performances are scheduled at Orchestra Hall (11am Wednesday, 8pm Friday and Saturday) and one performance at Cathedral of Saint Paul (7:30pm, Thursday). For the first time, Osmo Vanska will conduct the performances that also feature soloists and the Minnesota Chorale.

As always, Friday night's performance will be heard live on Classical MPR.

For me, there are several Messiah moments that I most look forward to (nothing gets the blood pumping like a rousing rendition of the bass air, "Why do the Nations Rage?").

So what about you?


Minnesota Orchestra's Microcommission Launched

Posted at 12:08 PM on November 18, 2010 by Daniel Gilliam (1 Comments)
Filed under: Events, Musician stories

Not all commissions are created equal. Some are large, some are small. But the notion that only those with "disposable income" could afford a new piece is meeting its demise with Minnesota Orchestra's Microcommission. Announced today on the orchestra's blog, Judd Greenstein will be the first composer to be commissioned by, well, anyone!

The concept of microdonations has blossomed in recent years through websites like Kickstarter, where anyone can give any amount to a project, artist, film and other artistic endeavors. Principal conductor of pops and presentations, Sarah Hicks, thought the concept would be perfect for a commission. She writes on the orchestra's page about wanting audience members to "feel a tangible connection to the work they are helping create."

Is this the future of new music? The future of financing new art in any medium?


Alex Ross blogs about the MSO concert this weekend

Posted at 9:01 AM on November 18, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Alex Ross - Music Critic at the New Yorker - writes today on his blog about the upcoming concert of the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra - a tribute to American jazz great Dave Brubeck and a 90th birthday celebration.

SPCO takes on the Big Apple!

Posted at 2:49 PM on November 11, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Practice, practice, practice - or write a piece for jazz ensemble and chamber orchestra.

Brad Mehldau and the SPCO performed his new piece at Carnegie this past Tuesday and the New York Times liked it writing "their contributions were vibrant and, in the Straussian movements, deeply soulful."

Question Time

Posted at 2:47 PM on November 9, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Events, Musician stories

I'm not sure why it took out station so long to have Artists in Residence--seems like a logical enough idea. Now that the program has been in place for a year or so, we can say it's been a fantastic experience.

Members of the male choral group Cantus will be in the studio on Thursday, answering your questions and playing requests. If you have one (or both)--let us hear from you!

More Cancellations in Detroit

Posted at 10:49 AM on November 9, 2010 by Ward Jacobson (1 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has canceled three additional weeks of concerts due to the musicians strike, beginning with four classical performances Thursday through Sunday that were to have been conducted by music director Leonard Slatkin.

In addition, Pops Series concerts next week and an additional weekend of classical concerts Nov. 26-28 have been canceled. A total of 27 concerts have now been canceled since the five-week old strike began Oct. 4.

Read more about it here.

Meanwhile, Viktoria Mullova plays Beethoven this week with the Minnesota Orchestra.


Alice Dancing under the Gallows

Posted at 9:24 AM on November 3, 2010 by Alison Young (3 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

The oldest Holocaust survivor in the world considers herself lucky - she has friends, her health, an optimistic outlook, and her music. Watch this spectacular short film about 107-year-old Alice who gave over a hundred concerts in Theresienstadt, a place where music became more than mere entertainment, it became a religion and beacon of hope.


"A special and unique type of talent..."

Posted at 1:23 PM on October 28, 2010 by Alison Young (1 Comments)
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

When I was in 6th grade, we had a contest in band to see who could play all their major and minor scales the fastest.

I love a challenge, so I worked them up and went for it.

After creating a kind of scale "smear" - I won! (I think the prize was a pile of candy...oh, well)

I'm not sure what exactly is going on here with violinist Anna Karkowska - is she for real? Is this a kind of Borat comedy-thing, as one of my colleagues suggests or does she just have some wealthy patron hiring her the London Symphony Orchestra for a few days?

You tell me!


Rose Ensemble postcard #7

Posted at 9:32 AM on October 27, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

It's the last night party at Doolittle's in Alexandria. Lots of stories shared amongst the Rose of driving in fierce winds, an Italian's view of the Midwest, successful weight loss, and the reason for the concert - St. Francis of Assisi.

Rose Ensemble postcard #6

Posted at 2:11 PM on October 26, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

Checking in from Brainerd. The Rose Ensemble singers are all tucked in for the night and Artistic Director Jordan Sramek - all on his lonesome - reflects on the fulfilling and full-housed last few performances.

Still more performances on their tour - check out the schedule.

ok, sure, but is it ART?

Posted at 2:23 PM on October 25, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Fun finds, Musical philosophy, Musician stories

This from Valerie Kahler ---

Violinist Oliver Lewis sets a new world record by performing Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" in 1 minute, 3.356 seconds -- a full second faster than the previous record holder.

Bah, humbug! This just in from Michael Barone...

Posted at 1:37 PM on October 25, 2010 by Alison Young (1 Comments)
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

For some, the idea of wall-to-wall-Christmas music - spewing forth from the day after Thanksgiving up to but not beyond December 25 - borders on the offensive, even the intolerable.

The First Noël is fine enough, but by the 100th iteration, is not the message somewhat blunted?

After all, not everyone is a Christian, and though plenty of opportunity exists to ramp up and get in the holiday spirit, even for those who are Believers, must this happen in such a way that the liturgical season of Advent - formerly a time of introspection and preparation - becomes obliterated amidst the commercial urgings to buy, buy, buy?

Even the twelve-days-of-Christmas, that take us from the Nativity to the visit of the Wise Men on January 6 - Epiphany, the real gift-giving in the Christmas pageant - virtually disappear from notice, since once we've hit the goal of December 25th, all is over (except the post-Christmas sales).

With typically cheeky insolence, a movement is afoot in Britain to provide for a true 'silent night', and a campaign Cage Against the Machine is underway to make John Cage's legendary piano piece, 4'33" the number one Christmas hit in the UK.

It does give one pause.... :-)

Michael Barone


Rose Ensemble audio postcard #5

Posted at 10:18 AM on October 20, 2010 by Alison Young (1 Comments)
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

Looks like Austin was fun for the Rose Ensemblers. Eating BBQ and drinking beer at Piggy Blues with a bit of post-concert chit-chat on this postcard.

Plus the secret to making a very special concert even more special - popcorn.

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Rose Ensemble audio postcard #4

Posted at 3:05 PM on October 19, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

The Rose Ensemble greets us from a gorgeous space - Our Lady of Good Counsel Chapel at the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato. Even their "ciao!" at the end of the postcard rings for about five seconds!

Thumbnail image for Tour Oct 2010 150.jpgThumbnail image for tour Rose.jpg

Rose Ensemble audio postcard #3

Posted at 3:33 PM on October 18, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

It's another gorgeous desert evening and The Rose Ensemble checks in from 'backstag'e at Grace St. Paul's in Tucson, Arizona. In the background, Isacco Colombo warms up his bagpipes.

Rose Ensemble audio postcard #2

Posted at 12:36 PM on October 13, 2010 by Alison Young (2 Comments)
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

Fun times for The Rose Ensemble on the road in Willmar, Minnesota.

I love the story about the little boy who was convinced he had a lower voice than the Rose's bass. Too cute!


Rose Ensemble audio postcard #1!

Posted at 1:52 PM on October 12, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

When I'm feeling kind of blue, I pop in one of my most favorite discs to transport me to another place and time. It's the Rose Ensemble's marvelous recording Il Poverello.

It's music filled with spirit, joy and the unexpected from Italy of the 12th-16th century - choral polyphony, medieval chant, lusty instrumental solos - all to praise one of the greatest and most humble saints, St. Francis of Assisi.

I promise you, it is not possible to feel a moment of self-pity after hearing this music. It simply takes you beyond this world. And right at this moment, The Rose Ensemble is taking this music around the state - with short jaunts to Indiana and Arizona - to make this blissful experience available to all of us.

Listen to Rose Director Jordan Sramek give a little behind-the-scenes audio postcard of their travels - and do try to make one of these concerts!

Renee Fleming drops a few octaves to sing pop covers

Posted at 12:31 PM on October 1, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Concerts, In the media, Musician stories

Renee Fleming returns to the Ordway next Thursday for a recital of Mahler, Korngold, Puccini as well as a work written for her by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. For the most part, she'll be singing in the soprano tessitura.

Her project with Dark Hope is something wholly different - and sung in a much deeper range. As always, Renee pulls it off with panache!

Mozart in Duluth

Posted at 4:28 PM on September 23, 2010 by Alison Young (2 Comments)
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

"Never should I have thought that a clarinet could be so capable of imitating a human voice so closely as it was imitated by thee. Verily, thy instrument has so soft and lovely a tone that nobody who has a heart can resist it."

This Saturday, I'll be hosting the pre-concert "Behind the Music" talk for the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra's opening night concert. Richard Stolzman is the guest playing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.

I was getting my notes together, deciding which facts to include and what to emphasize all while Stolzman's recording played in the background.

Suddenly I found myself moved to tears. How is it possible - I asked myself - could such sublime music spring from one man's mind?

Of course there is no answer. We are simply given the gift without a thing asked in return, but that we enjoy!


Gil Shaham just wants to have fun

Posted at 11:50 AM on September 17, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Concerts, Fun finds, Musician stories

I loved getting the chance to talk with Gil Shaham this week in preparation for our first live broadcast of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra tomorrow night. He is a serious musician, for sure - but he also likes to have a little fun.

Classical Music is alive at the State Fair!

Posted at 11:19 AM on September 3, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Events, Musician stories, Programs

Six fabulous young opera singers from the Minnesota Opera Resident Artist Program were my guests yesterday at the State Fair. The eager crowd "bravo-ed" and "brava-ed" a selection of Rossini, Donizetti as well as a kind of barbershop styled "O Mio Babbino Caro." The three low-voiced men even sang a dueling "Toreador" from Carmen. It was a gas!

No one broke character even when a PA system took over or when a few drops of rain threatened to end the fun.

If you're planning to take in the fair, drop by the MPR booth. I should be preparing just now to introduce Cantus this afternoon - MPR's new artists-in-residence. But as I sit at my desk, I am glued to our web-cam with the three gubernatorial candidates holding forth - there is one guy talking non-stop....I won't say who, you'll have to watch for yourself!

Still more great stuff at the MPR booth at the State Fair - visit us in person or online.

Minnesota Orchestra (and MPR) at the Proms

Posted at 8:32 AM on August 27, 2010 by Rex Levang (1 Comments)
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories, Programs

Today's the day when the Minnesota Orchestra begins its two-day stand at the Proms in London. MPR's Brian Newhouse is also in London to host the broadcast, which you can hear at 1:30 (Minnesota time) this afternoon.

Britons who may be less familiar with the Orchestra and its conductor can do prep work by reading an article in Wednesday's Telegraph. The headline writer may have gotten a tad carried away in describing the Orchestra's pre-Osmo "obscurity"--but see what you think. Complete article here.


Sir James in Hollywood

Posted at 3:39 AM on August 26, 2010 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

I was checking out James Galway's website this morning and noticed he's playing a big gig with the LA Philharmonic and Leonard Slatkin tonight (8/26) at the Hollywood Bowl. Galway has made a most remarkable comeback after suffering a nasty fall at his home in Switzerland last December, just two weeks after turning 70.

The world-renowned flautist was forced to cancel three months of recitals after he plunged down a flight of stairs at his home in Lucerne, Switzerland, leaving him with a gash on his forehead, a fractured left wrist and shattered right elbow.

So well done, Sir James...definitely the front-runner for "Come Back Player of the Year."

It's a job. It's a sign of the times. It's weird.

Posted at 1:17 PM on August 25, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

I've been closely following the unfolding drama in Cleveland over the re-assignment of Donald Rosenberg - the senior music critic for the Plain Dealer after he wrote a series of scathing reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra's Music Director.

Sadly, the job of music critic for many papers around the country has all but disappeared. But in an unusual twist Timothy Mangun of the Orange County Register will be moved off the classical music beat to cover the "People" section of the paper.

He writes on his blog "I'll be covering the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Mel Gibson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dr. Laura (did I spell those right?) and all the other worthies whom readers can't get enough of. Drunken tirades, courtroom dramas and sex scandals will be the grist of my mill. No joke."

Mozart Mortality: Multiple Choice

Posted at 12:58 PM on August 24, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

OK, class. The death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was caused by:

a. Poisoning
b. Infection
c. Cardiovascular disease
d. Kidney failure
e. Other

What's the right answer? Actually, there's no clear consensus, but one researcher has at least grouped the various conjectures--over 100 of them-- into the five main categories above. Check out this New York Times article for all the theories that are fit to print. (Registration required.)

(By the way: the Austrian National Library has put a huge amount of its newspaper holdings online, going back to the 18th century. You can go to this page to see the death notice for "Hr. Wolf. Amadeus Mozart" on December 5, 1791, the fifth line down. It's in the old blackletter type--harder to read, but for modern eyes, it only adds to the somber mood.)

PT...the Proms...Paul Lewis...and Beethoven

Posted at 1:46 PM on August 10, 2010 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Musician stories, Programs

Paul Lewis was born in Liverpool two years after the Beatles broke up. Now he's on a quest to become the first pianist to perform all five Beethoven piano concertos in one summer at the BBC Proms in London, although not necessarily in order. Order, shmorder.

Performance Today featured Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 on today's show. No. 3 is coming up on Thursday's program. No. 5 comes later this month.

And just in case you missed it back in July, here's a sampling of Mr. Lewis at the Proms playing No. 4, with that exquisite opening phrase (it gets me every time).

Experienced voices

Posted at 12:25 PM on July 30, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

Did you sing in a high school or college choir and then watched as your singing life slipped away while you started a career, got married and raised a family?

With your AARP card comes a chance to sing again. Voices of Experience is a choir for singers 55 and above, with or without experience.

If you're tired of just being asked to support the arts, this is your chance to BE the art.

Auditions are late August and early September. Call 612-321-0100.

Daniel Schorr, Music Critic

Posted at 12:35 PM on July 23, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

The death of Daniel Schorr reminded me that he briefly thought of being, not a news reporter, but a classical music reviewer.

That revelation appeared in this interview with Robert Siegel. (It's under six minutes, but the classical part begins at about three minutes in.)

A Haiku for Anne Akiko Myers

Posted at 11:04 AM on July 16, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

It's not just rock bands who are using social media to reach out to their fans, and let their fans reach back.

The violinist Anne Akiko Myers is asking her fans to listen to a cut from her upcoming album--and respond with their poetry.

Read all about it, and maybe even contribute, here.

Trying Harder in Detroit

Posted at 11:46 PM on June 29, 2010 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Musician stories

Kudos to Leonard Slatkin and the members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for trying to think outside the box during some of the worst economic times the city has ever experienced. Check out the story in this week's Time magazine.

Backstage with the SPCO

Posted at 2:14 PM on June 25, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Musician stories

Things can get a little daffy on the last day of school . . . or on the last day of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's season.

For example, the fellow at the beginning of their video, trying to play a tuba, is actually a violinist.

See the SPCO's backstage video here.

Peter Pears 100th

Posted at 12:00 AM on June 22, 2010 by John Birge
Filed under: Musician stories, The blog

The great English tenor Peter Pears was born 100 years ago today.
His was a unique voice of great intimacy and subtlety, and his life was inextricably tied to his partner, composer Benjamin Britten.

Pears met Britten in 1936. They frequently gave recitals together, often featuring Britten's gorgeous arrangements of English folk song:

Britten went on to compose many of his major works with Peter Pears in mind, including the title role in the opera Peter Grimes. But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then one can imagine no greater tribute than this one, paid by Dudley Moore. Genius!

Being Pavarotti

Posted at 6:25 PM on June 8, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Christine Sweet recommends a wonderful new film Being Pavarotti

She writes: "I have a bad habit of turning on the TV late Sunday nights when I should be getting ready to turn in. Last year on one such occasion I stumbled upon a documentary film in progress on PBS and stayed up way too late to watch the rest of it.

Now I'm an easy mark for a true story about someone who pursues a life of music against difficult odds. But this film captivated me with a context outside my experience and imagination.

Elton, a South African teenager from a poor family is given a Luciano Pavarotti cassette by his cousin, falls in love with the voice, and is determined to "be" Pavarotti."

The film is available for stream on-line

Dudamel on 60 Minutes

Posted at 1:19 PM on May 17, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is not exactly an unknown figure in the classical music world. Still, it's safe to say that last night's story on 60 Minutes introduced him to a whole new audience.

(And if that piqued your interest in the Venezuelan phenom, check out Julie Amacher's New Classical Tracks feature on his "Discoveries" CD .)

Violinist's career saved

Posted at 11:25 AM on May 13, 2010 by Alison Young (1 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Roger Frisch is the Minn Orch's associate concertmaster and a couple of years ago he was diagnosed with Essential Tremor - a career ender.

But thanks to the Mayo clinic - and a device from Medtronic - he's back playing.

Here's the story (and video with Roger playing his violin while in surgery!)


Ouch! It hurts to "play" music...

Posted at 1:54 PM on May 12, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Events, Musician stories

Many of us are amazed (and envious) that professional musicians get paid to play music. We imagine careers that are stress-free, fun and joy-filled. While making music can be a joyous career, it can also be hazardous to one's health. Difficult repertoire, fast tempos, less than ideal performing conditions and non-ergonomic playing positions all contribute to stress and injuries ranging from tendinitis to TMJ.

Join me tonight at 7:30 at Common Good Books in Saint Paul when I interview Minnesota Orchestra Associate Principal cellist Janet Horvath about the new edition of her best-selling "Playing (Less) Hurt" and find out how musicians can avoid injuries (or at least lessen the risk for injury) and enjoy a long and healthy performance life.

Italian Opera on the Picket Line

Posted at 4:25 PM on May 6, 2010 by Rex Levang (1 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Labor. money, and turf issues are closing down opera performances in Italy, the land where opera was born. This New York Times article* has details, and in the headline, one of the stereotypes that refuses to die.

*Registration required


Quick notes from our hosts

Posted at 10:05 AM on April 26, 2010 by Michael Wells
Filed under: Events, Musician stories

It's interesting how things coincidentally converge. German-born conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, the music director in Winnipeg, will replace Dennis Russell Davies in his second (cancelled) week of SPCO appearances. As chance would have it, he previously was an assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Back in 2004, he led that ensemble in a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall which featured, for the first time before a "public" audience, a performance with the hall's new pipe organ (with its festival Frank Gehry-designed façade). That concert was broadcast on PIPEDREAMS on MPR on Sunday, April 25. A fine way of introducing the community to Alexander Mickelthwate!
- Michael Barone

It never ceases to amaze me how much wonderful new music there is to share in the community around here. This past week, the oboe and bass combo Vecchione/Erdahl Duo performed at St. Therese Care Center in New Hope. I attended and participated in a concert they did a couple weeks ago at the Lakeville Arts Center, a wonderful venue which hosts theater and music events, including chamber music. The Duo and friends performed entertaining works by Morton Gould, Timothy Goplerud and others. And I had the chance to narrate the Story of Babar in a musical setting. My young niece who's just learning to read followed along with a copy of the book from her seat. Youngsters and oldsters both had an enjoyable afternoon.
- Steve Staruch

A touching story of giving

Posted at 12:41 PM on April 15, 2010 by Alison Young (1 Comments)
Filed under: Musician stories

A young pianist is so enamored with Emmanuel Ax, he talks his way into meeting him backstage at a recital. Afterwards, he vows never to complain again about practicing.

Sadly, the boy succumbs to Leukemia, but his parents decide to give a gift in his name to the school he attended - something they were not able to give him in his lifetime - a Steinway piano.

Ax is so touched by the gift and it's possibilities to touch other young musicians, that he offers to play the dedication recital on the new Steinway.

There's more here.


The Mendelssohn Workout

Posted at 12:51 AM on April 7, 2010 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Musician stories, Programs

British violinist Daniel Hope (who happens to have a pretty terrific website) seems too busy for a workout. Not only is the guy a world-class soloist, he's also a broadcaster, author, musical activist, and producer - among other things. But if he is looking for a good sweat, he can bypass the gym. There's always Mendelssohn.

Tonight's (Thursday, 12:05am) Euro-Classic features Mendelssohn's beloved E minor Violin Concerto - a vigorous, athletic work. The composer was still in his 20s when he started it, and yet it's music brimming with wisdom.

Stay up late with Classical MPR to hear a recording from last September, with Daniel Hope and the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra at Olav's Hall in Trondheim, Norway.

And there's another Euro-Classic Saturday night at 8:05, as Piers Lane plays the Paderewski Piano Concerto with the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

"Playing Viola Was My Ticket out of Poverty"

Posted at 1:44 PM on March 31, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Events, Musician stories

This month and next, MPR is organizing a used-instrument drive, getting old instruments out of attics and into the hands of kids. Our listeners have been contributing their own stories about their early involvement with musical instruments, and there are more attention-getting quotes than you can shake a flugelhorn at, including the headline up at the top. Consider:

"A spiritual quest of sorts"

"I was a dweeby nerd"

"I was so bad at first that. . . ."

"Band was the reason I continued my education"

But you can read the complete stories here, and also learn how to participate.

Two days to learn new role - no probs!

Posted at 1:03 PM on March 24, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Concerts, Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

Soprano Marlis Peterson had two days to learn a new role for the Met's new production of Thomas' "Hamlet."

Natalie Dessay was scheduled to play Ophelia and dropped out at the last minute. Marlis was already singing in Vienna, so had to show up in New York for a crash course.

She got rave reviews - you can hear her performance with the Met Opera broadcast this Saturday at noon on Classical MPR.

Good News for Ogren, Bad News for Levine

Posted at 8:50 AM on March 23, 2010 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Conductor James Levine, who missed the beginning of the 2009-10 season due to health problems, will now miss the final weeks as well. While that's bad news for him, it gives a high profile gig to St. Olaf College alum Jayce Ogren, who will replace Maestro Levine in a world premiere performance this weekend with the Boston Symphony.

Awesome Jelloslave

Posted at 1:48 PM on March 19, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Events, Musician stories

Last night it was the Bach Birthday Bash at the Dakota and we heard three spectacular sets - a wonderful couple of Bach Society harpsichordists, followed by the transcendent Matt Haimovitz and then a quartet new to me, Jelloslave.

This group really rocked out - it's two classically-trained cellists, drums and tabla. A couple of highlights were a Bach/George Harrison suite, a piece by Bach-contemporary Turlough O'Carolan, a Bach Invention that morphed into Jimi Hendrix, plus a few tunes from their newest disc "Purple Orange" coming out in few weeks.

Their music is a kind of mesmerizing mix of dance and improvisation and the drums never completely take over the sound. They just give the whole feel a great rhythm and synergy. They played late into the night, but kept me wanting more.

The Greatest Orchestra in the World

Posted at 5:08 PM on March 16, 2010 by Gillian Martin (2 Comments)
Filed under: Awards & Accomplishments, In the media, Musician stories

You may have heard us congratulating the Minnesota Orchestra for their fabulous review in this week's New Yorker.

Music critic Alex Ross wrote about the large number of different orchestras which had performed in Carnegie Hall recently, and concluded the piece with this bold statement:

For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.

You can read the whole piece here.


Confessions of a Drum Dork

Posted at 8:27 PM on March 15, 2010 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Awards & Accomplishments, Fun finds, Musician stories

When Jauvon Gilliam heard that the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., was looking for a new timpanist, he wanted that job. Bad.

So on the 26-hour drive from Winnipeg, he called up other professional timpanists along the way and asked to play for them, so that he could get used to playing nervous and in unfamiliar settings.

The prep paid off, and he got the job. Read more about this self-identified "drum dork" and get a peek into a timpanist's world here.

Classical MPR stars!

Posted at 4:20 PM on March 10, 2010 by Alison Young (3 Comments)
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

Classical Host Mindy Ratner and Performance Today producers Kate Saumur and Jeff Bina are making beautiful music together this Sunday as part of the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra's performance of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."

Mindy Ratner has been singing alto with the Minnesota Chorale for some time. She told me she loves the words. "They're filled with love and longing, and a fair amount of mischief. Although we sing about the unfairness of life and the cruelty of Fate, there's a lot of fun to be had along the way!"

Her favorite part is the "hapless tale of the Roasted Swan...poor guy!"

That 'poor guy' has his own solo movement that begins with one lone bassoon played by PT's Kate Saumur who says "just before he sings, the first bassoon has a very high, kind of comical/lamenting solo, and then one obnoxious low note. I call it my 'dead swan on a stick' solo. The scary part is not the high stuff, but resetting your embouchure and pulling that down-in-the-basement low C from out of nowhere."

Kate told me she loves the huge gong crashes in the opening and closing choruses. They make her want to be a percussionist!

That's PT's Jeff Bina's role. He is one of a whole band of percussionists playing the snare, chimes and sleigh bells. He says he loves the snare because it's "so crisp and exacting. I play on all the boisterous outbursts and I add the exclamation mark at the finish of each song. The sleigh bells are impossible to keep quiet. I wrote in my part when to pick them up, so they'll be covered by a loud part in the music!"

If Carmina is not enough to get your blood roiling, also on the program is one of the sweetest pieces ever written, Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music."


Philip Langridge, 70: famous English tenor, comic genius

Posted at 4:01 PM on March 7, 2010 by John Birge
Filed under: Musician stories

Tenor Philip Langridge died Friday, age 70.

He one of the leading singers in English opera and oratorio, and sang at the great opera houses around the world. Among his specialties were his interpretations of Benjamin Britten's operas, in particular Peter Grimes.

His last performances were at the Metropolitan Opera last January, where he played The Witch in Hänsel and Gretel. Dressed in fat suit, complete with giant bosom, wide-load butt, and jiggling flabby arms, Langridge's Witch strutted around her gingerbread kitchen, a prep-cook in drag joyfully readying Hänsel and Gretel for the roaster. It's a brilliant comic turn, and his performance was released on DVD. Here's a little taste of Philip Langridge's comic genius:

Mr. Kraus Goes to Sweden

Posted at 1:33 AM on February 24, 2010 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Musician stories, Programs

Joseph Martin Kraus made his way from Germany to Sweden when he was 21, desperately trying to get the attention of the music-loving King Gustav. Kraus lived in extreme poverty during his first three years in Stockholm, but eventually got his foot in the door and the King took notice. By 1781, Krauss had become Director of Sweden's Royal Academy of Music. Many of his symphonies have been lost or attributed to other composers, but there's an authentic Kraus symphony waiting for you late tonight (12:05am, Thursday) on Classical MPR. It's an exclusive, Euro-Classic performance by the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, recorded live last June in Schwetzingen, Germany.

Our Saturday night (8:05pm) Euro-Classic returns to Germany (St. Kastor Basilica, Koblenz) where there's gorgeous choral music: selections from Monteverdi's Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, featuring the ensemble La Venexiana.

Bernstein on TV

Posted at 2:18 PM on February 22, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Leonard Bernstein's initial outings on TV are well-known--the famous image is of him and his musicians, standing on a huge blow-up of the score of Beethoven's Fifth. But they haven't been widely available on video till now. This New York Times article* recalls those golden days of television.

(Check out the video clip of Bernstein the vocalist, doing lines from "Macbeth" in the style of a blues.)

*Registration required

50 Great Voices

Posted at 4:17 PM on February 17, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

You might just remember that at the end of last year, NPR was soliciting ideas on singers--the greatest, the most distinctive, the most important, etc.--which they would then boil down to a list of 50, to be presented on the air.

Those 50 great voices are now being rolled out, and the choices so far include one very well-known opera singer.

There's a member drive going on--thanks to all of our contributors!

Tenor Fail

Posted at 8:41 PM on February 15, 2010 by John Birge (1 Comments)
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

Thanks to Jeff Esworthy for passing along this audio clip, which brightened my day immeasurably! Perhaps we show our humanity at its best when making glorious mistakes like this one. No pussyfooting, just go for the high note:

And to hear how it's really done, here's Luciano; the moment is about 1:10 in:


The Connecting Power of Music

Posted at 3:47 PM on February 10, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Musician stories

For today's entry, I'm passing on an email from Michael Barone. The piece described sets the words of Abraham Lincoln to music, and you can hear it in its entirety on Thursday in the 11 p.m. hour, as part of The New Releases.

Wednesday's mail contained a new CD featuring a timely piece of beautiful new music, Michael Daugherty's "Letters from Lincoln," a live-concert recording with the Spokane Symphony. Thomas Hampson is the perfect soloist -- involved, intelligent, intelligible -- and Daugherty's score is touching and thoughtful.

In the "small world" department (and small print, too), I was reading the CD's album credits and noticed mention of the Bruce Ferden Fund for New Music of the Spokane Symphony. Blast from the past! Way back, in my early days in Minnesota (1968-1972), Bruce was a brilliant student of Loris Tjeknavorian (himself a brilliant young conductor, at the beginning of a very colorful career) at Moorhead State University.

By happy coincidence, Bruce also was fast friends with the very musical (and attractive) middle daughter of a general practice physician in Sauk Centre, Dr. John C. Grant. Dr. Jack was one of MPR's earliest members and sponsors. Jack also was an organ nut, had a small instrument in his house, and also built the pipe organ for the little Episcopal church in Sauk Centre where he played every Sunday. He and his wife Phyllis even put on a Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols Service at their little church (a la King's College, this way before the broadcasts on MPR and nationwide). They had to do seven or eight "performances" to accommodate community interest, as the building could barely hold 120 people.

Anyway, because of my organ background and interest, Jack pulled me into the Grant family sphere early. Though I did not marry the doctor's daughter, one of my MPR colleagues (Arthur Hoehn) did marry the elder Grant sister, and I played for their wedding. Bruce Ferden also was a regular at the many round-table discussions during holiday gatherings at the Grants' home (there was more musical talk going on there than in Bruce's home town of Fosston). Later, I watched with delight and amazement from the sidelines as Bruce evolved his career...and then in 1993 was shocked and saddened to learn that he had died of A.I.D.S. It seems like so long ago...and he was accomplishing so much.

Receiving the CD of Daugherty's touching tribute to our historic President Lincoln today reminded me of these other wonderful people in my own history (Jack and Phyllis Grant, bless them, are also "history"), and it was very satisfying to see that Bruce Ferden's memory is being kept alive through a commissioning program in Spokane where he was the symphony's music director for six years.

It is a small world, and the power of music reaches into every corner.

--Michael Barone

James Galway Can't Play the Flute

Posted at 12:35 PM on January 27, 2010 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Well, not with two broken arms, he can't.

Apparently Sir James took a nasty fall around the start of the New Year, shattering the elbow on one arm and breaking his wrist on the other. Ouch.

While he's cancelled all his February performances, he hopes to be back in the game by March, according to a statement on his website.

When he gets to Michigan in early March to play with the Detroit Symphony, I'm sure he and conductor Leonard Slatkin will compare notes about unexpected medical leaves.

Happy Birthday Mozart

Posted at 3:13 AM on January 27, 2010 by Ward Jacobson (2 Comments)
Filed under: Musician stories

Mozart was born 254 years ago today (1/27/1756) and of all the great Mozart stories out there, this is one of my favorites:

Mozart was in his mid 20s, and up to his arms in work when his (often pushy) father, Leopold, made a request. He asked Mozart to write a symphony for some festive occasion in the house of the "Mayor" of Salzburg - Siegmund Haffner.

The story goes that Mozart composed the work at top speed (remember, he was swamped!) - so fast, in fact, that he finished it, sent it off to Dad, and then promptly forgot all about it. And then, when the manuscript eventually was returned, he was stunned at how good the work was. Today we know it as Mozart's SYMPHONY #35, the Haffner Symphony. Just another day at work for the musical genius.

So what's YOUR favorite Mozart story?


Emerson String Quartet in Winona

Posted at 5:57 AM on January 22, 2010 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

The Emerson String Quartet performs in Winona tomorrow night under the auspices of the Minnesota Beethoven Festival.

The four of them have played together for more than 30 years now. What's the secret to their longevity?

Cellist David Finckel says that their friendship is solid, but what drives them is the work itself: "There is so much to do, just to play everything we are committed to, and to do it at the level that people have come to expect of us."

Read more about what Mr. Finckel has to say about the Emersons, the state of string quartets generally, and his (lack of) work-life balance in this two-part interview by Madison, WI-based critic and blogger Jacob Stockinger.

Cleveland Orchestra Musicians Go On Strike

Posted at 1:48 AM on January 18, 2010 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

"We may be considered to be amongst the best in the world musically, but we are a far cry from being compensated that way or treated that way," say the musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra.

The orchestra's board of trustees, on the other hand, said it recognized the musicians' "incredible artistry" but was committed to "ongoing prudent cost control."

That disagreement led the musicians to go on strike as of midnight Sunday night. Read more about what both sides have to say here.

On a facetious note, as the musicians picket in the chilly Cleveland weather this week, I wonder how many of them will wish they'd waited to strike until after their Miami residency?

It's pays to be nice!

Posted at 12:46 PM on January 15, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

How cool is this - to have your kind words on using kind words get picked up by the Wall Street Journal?

That's what happened to Minneapolis-based flutist Linda Chatterton. Her techniques on using kind, true and helpful words with students and avoid gossip ended up in a larger piece by WSJ Senior Writer Jeff Zaslow.

Conan O'Brien News

Posted at 8:44 AM on January 14, 2010 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

I refer of course to tonight's appearance by violinist Hilary Hahn (assuming no last-minute changes. . . .)

Are we in danger of losing Burt Hara?

Posted at 1:43 PM on January 13, 2010 by Alison Young
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Clarinetist Stanley Drucker retired from the New York Philharmonic last year to huge fanfare since he had been playing magnificently with the band for 60 years.

How can one replace a legend? Well, the NY Phil has had a tough time, so after many rounds of auditions they are now inviting Principal Clarinetists from around the country to sit in with the Phil - though they don't want anyone to know who they are.

None-the-less, our very own Minnesota Orchestra Principal Burt Hara was a real stand-out in a recent concert and got a write up in the Times.

Low Cal Beethoven

Posted at 12:34 AM on January 13, 2010 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Ludwig van Beethoven, Musician stories, Programs

It was common practice in Beethoven's day to arrange large scale works for smaller forces. After all, getting to the concert hall wasn't always possible, so this allowed amateur musicians to experience great music right in their homes.

Beethoven's assistant, Ferdinand Ries arranged the "Eroica" Symphony for piano quartet, and you'll hear an exclusive performance by the Mozart Piano Quartet, recorded live last July at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Northern Germany.

Stay up late tonight for our weekly Euro Classic - just after midnight (12:05am, Thursday).

Got someting to complain about? SING about it!

Posted at 11:56 AM on January 7, 2010 by Alison Young (1 Comments)
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

There's never been a better time to complain than now - heaps of snow, followed by rain, followed by below zero temps, followed by impossible-to-navigate ice mountains. I can't stand it!

Well here's a creative way to let loose on all my complaints- a complaint choir.

There's even a movie in the making...


Vancouver Symphony Just Says No to the Olympics

Posted at 10:11 AM on January 5, 2010 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Remember the fuss when the big name classical performers at President Obama's inauguration did not play live at the event, but mimed to a recording of themselves?

Or the lip-synching controversy that erupted after the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics?

My personal view is, "Well, that's show biz," at least when it comes to enormous public events in which music is only one small part.

But Bramwell Tovey, conductor of the Vancouver Symphony, took a much harder line when the organizing committee for the upcoming Winter Olympics asked the orchestra to pre-record. See what he had to say here.

A Musical "First" for the first

Posted at 9:21 AM on January 1, 2010 by Alison Young (1 Comments)
Filed under: Musician stories, Programs

Today's a day of musical firsts - first symphonies, first performances, first recordings.

Just a moment ago, I played a newer rendition of the first performance ever to be recorded. Though other recordings had been made a decade earlier, this is the only one still in existence.

A representative of Edison saved this moment - a Friday afternoon concert in June of 1888. Sir August Manns led an orchestra of 500 and a choir of over 4,000, in front of an audience of something like 23,722 in London's Crystal Palace.

Though the wax cylinder recording is ghostly, it is a "musical first!"

Happy New Year and thanks to MPR member Bill in La Crosse for alerting me to this recording.


Once in Royal David's City...

Posted at 9:18 AM on December 24, 2009 by Alison Young (3 Comments)
Filed under: Musician stories, Programs

For 90 years, this simple carol has opened A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College in Cambridge, England.

Our broadcast host Michael Barone told me that the boy choristers all learn the first solo verse and don't know who will sing it until the conductor Stephen Cleobury points to the lucky one right before he has to sing!

It's an exciting moment and a beautiful service. We carry the Festival live this morning and repeat it tonight at 5:00 - Don't miss this Christmas Eve tradition of word and music!


Caroling, Caroling...

Posted at 2:38 AM on December 23, 2009 by Ward Jacobson (1 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Is Christmas caroling a lost tradition in this fast-paced, instant gratification, digital world we live in? Maybe not - at least not in the Twin Cities. On three different nights this past week I've spotted carolers out and about, braving the cold. One group even had luminaries! What a wonderful holiday tradition carried out by some hearty and musical souls.


Workout Tips from the (Opera) Stars

Posted at 3:04 PM on December 10, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

Here's an article on singer Nathan Gunn and the things he does to stay in shape. It's a pretty good workout plan, from the looks of the photos.

No prizes, but do you think it appeared in:

A. Opera News?
B. Men's Health ?
C. Wall Street Journal?

For the answer, and all the details, click here.

Conductors and Batons

Posted at 1:41 PM on December 10, 2009 by Gillian Martin (1 Comments)
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

No matter what your line of work, just the right tool can make a big difference in how you perform. For most conductors, that tool is the baton:

The baton is a "living thing, charged with a kind of electricity," Leonard Bernstein once said, "which makes it an instrument of meaning in its tiniest movement."

Read more about conductors and their intimate relationships with their batons in this article.

Warning to the grammatically sensitive: In the course of this article one esteemed conductor uses the word "architect" as a verb. Just so you know.


Rachel Barton Pine...Die-Hard Metalhead

Posted at 3:34 AM on December 10, 2009 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Heavy metal. Yep, it's hardcore, down and dirty and classical violinist Rachel Barton Pine absolutely LOVES it. As she puts it, "metal grabs you by the throat, hits you in the gut, tears you down, lifts you up, and makes you feel ALIVE."

She's even in her own metal band. (They're playing in Chicago and Milwaukee this weekend)

Check out Rachel's blog for Decibel Magazine's website on The Top Five Most Metal Pieces of Classical Music. Works by Bartok, Stravinsky, Mahler and even Beethoven crack her Top Five.

Our own Julie Amacher will have more on Rachel Barton Pine in the days to come, and probably not so heavy on the metal.

Iraqi musicians swept up in recent violence

Posted at 4:31 PM on December 9, 2009 by Alison Young
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

The Iraqi National Orchestra director Karim Wasfi told an audience just last week that "you have a choice in life. You can choose a weapon, a Kalashnikov, or you can try a musical instrument."

But the orchestra itself has been in the middle of the renewed violence in Baghdad, including the most recent suicide bombing that claimed 127 lives on Tuesday.

As of this writing, it is unlcear if any musicians are among the dead.

Honoring Marilyn Horne

Posted at 2:36 PM on December 9, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Musician stories, Programs

Earlier this year, there was a big birthday celebration for Marilyn Horne, in the form of a concert which we'll be bringing you tonight.

Now please note that this isn't a recital by Marilyn Horne. Rather, some of the brightest names in opera (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Piotr Beczala, etc.) got together to perform in her honor. Here's a little hint of what you'll hear, with Dolora Zajick in an aria from St-Saens's "Samson and Delilah" (different performance, same artist and music).

Join Fred Child tonight at 8 for all the festivities.

Congrats to Mark Kosower

Posted at 8:13 AM on December 8, 2009 by John Birge
Filed under: Musician stories

The Cleveland Orchestra has named a new principal cello, and he's a guy with some Twin Cities connections.

Mark Kosower is originally from Eau Claire, WI, and has performed frequently in MN over the years, including performances with the SPCO while he still a teenager.

Now, Kosower is the first cello of the Bamberg Symphony; before that he was guest principal of the North German Radio Symphony in Hamburg. He'll start in Cleveland in July.

Last year, Julie Amacher reviewed Kosower's CD of cello music Alberto Ginastera. You can listen to that if you click here.

Or, treat yourself to a little cello recital:

Don't Just Sit There, Do Something!

Posted at 12:37 PM on November 23, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Fun finds, Musical philosophy, Musician stories

When you go to a concert, do you want to see the musicians comporting themselves in a dignified fashion, with no more bodily motion than the minimum required?

Or should they really get into it?

At least in a teaching situation, Sir Simon Rattle favors the latter option. Read this account of his master class where he tells the young orchestral players, "You cannot sit there like lumps!"

Melbourne Symphony Wonders: Is Music Director Necessary?

Posted at 1:14 PM on November 16, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

The Melbourne Symphony recently parted ways with its Music Director, Oleg Caetani, a year before his contract ran out.

This fact, and the success of a recent guest conductor, has the orchestra's president wondering if they need a single music director at all. Wouldn't a series of specialists be better?

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra asked the same questions a few years ago, and came up with an answer that works very well for them.

And by the way, the SPCO welcomes its newest artistic partner later this month.

Can orchestras survive with "business as usual?"

Posted at 8:52 AM on November 12, 2009 by Alison Young
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Earlier this fall, Michael Kaiser, the President of the Kennedy Center, made his way to Saint Paul to talk with about 250 arts presenters. Many of those anxiously hung on every word of the Turnaround King's advice for staying in business in this economy.

Michael Kaiser's pep talks come from his own experience on saving organizations on the brink of collapse. But recently in his blog in the Huffington Post, he admitted some groups are just going to fail.

Oldest Orchestra West of the Rockies Files for Bankruptcy

Posted at 4:49 AM on November 9, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

The Honolulu Symphony had struggled financially for the last couple of years. Its musicians have sometimes gone months without paychecks.

Now its board has cancelled the rest of its 2009 concerts and filed for bankruptcy.

Classical Grrl Power

Posted at 9:43 PM on November 4, 2009 by John Birge
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

The BBC reports that Durham Cathedral, one of the England's oldest and largest, has admitted girls to its traditional choir of men and boys. The girls sang Evensong last Sunday. Going forward, the choir will have 20 boys and 20 girls, most girls between the ages of nine and eleven. It's the end of a tradition that goes back to the year 1640, and as The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove put it: "It is not often that we can genuinely say that we are making history in a cathedral as old as this."

From 1703 to 1741, Antonio Vivaldi spent the last 38 years of his life as teaching and conducting the all-girl orchestra at the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice. It was a home for orphaned, abandoned, or illegitimate girls. Music was a primary activity, and the level of instruction was so high that some parents would try to pass off their legitimate children as illegitimate in order to get them in! A plaque outside Vivaldi's school warned that anyone who attempted this fraud would be struck by lightning.

The Seika Girls' High School Band of Japan isn't restricted to orphans, but it's one of the best in the world. Hey, forget the Supremes and all those other Girl Groups of the '60s; the precision and passion in this video is stunning. Check out the powerful low brass section; they put many college-age bands to shame. (BTW, props to my old friend Aaron Brask of the Jacksonville Symphony for passing this along...)

Composing Well Is the Best Revenge

Posted at 5:39 PM on November 4, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

The financial and legal ordeal of composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who had been defrauded by his former manager, has reached some kind of closure. Details here, including the revenge that the composer is mulling over.

Another American Conductor on the Disabled List

Posted at 11:26 PM on November 3, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

While conductor James Levine's medical leave keeps getting longer, another American conductor has cancelled a couple of weeks worth of concerts.

Current Detroit Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin gave new definition to the phrase "the show must go on" Sunday night in Rotterdam.

He suffered a heart attack, but managed to finish the concert before undergoing surgery later that night. Read more about it here.

Halloween with Ben Folds at Orchestra Hall

Posted at 9:52 AM on November 3, 2009 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

In the previous blog, my colleague Alison Young talked about dressing as an SPCO musician wannabe Halloween night in St. Paul. Down I-94 in Minneapolis that night, Orchestra Hall was handing out fake eye-glasses to patrons (many in costume) attending the Minnesota Orchestra pops concert featuring Ben Folds, who's known (among other things) for his horn-rimmed specs.

Nice touch for a night full of fun music.

Special kudos to Pops conductor Sara Hicks who seemed to have as much fun as anyone, including coming out for the second half of the concert as Cher, along with Folds' Sonny.

Being a big fan of Folds, I was really curious to hear how this collaboration would work - and for the most part, it worked quite well. Most importantly though, the hall was packed - and I'm guessing a good portion of those in attendance had not been there before and were hearing the Minnesota Orchestra for the first time. Hopefully, they'll be back.

Minnesota Organist/Composer Dies

Posted at 1:17 AM on October 29, 2009 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Musician stories

Word from Michael Barone about the death Wednesday night of Minnesota organist and composer Paul Manz, whose most famous choral work is the Advent motet "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come."

In 2001, Manz was featured in a PIPEDREAMS program of his compositions, performances and commentary. More about that when you click here.

Paul Manz was 90.

Blogger Adams

Posted at 9:07 AM on October 28, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Musician stories

Add composer John Adams to the list of prominent musical bloggers. Go here to see his jottings on air travel, taking his pointer Eloise to the dog show, preparing a work for its world premiere, and more.

We have a member drive going on right now -- thanks to all our contributors!

Interactive Ives

Posted at 4:58 PM on October 23, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

If you remember our series The MTT Files (MTT being conductor Michael Tilson Thomas), you'll be interested to know that new episodes of the related TV series, Keeping Score, have now been released.

They're accompanied with abundant amounts of online information--text, images, video, and interactive pages. Here's one that lets you be your own Charles Ives. It combines Taps, played by a single trumpeter, with a marching band. The trumpeter stands in a skiff on a New England pond; with your mouse, you can place him off in the distance, or bring him in to shore, as the band plays on (or not). Charles Ives had a fondness for this kind of aural scene-setting--give it a try for yourself.

Messiaen as performance art

Posted at 2:47 PM on October 23, 2009 by Alison Young
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

When Olivier Messiaen was a prisoner of war, he composed one of the most astonishing pieces of music of the 20th century: "The Quartet for the End of Time."

It's said that Messiaen suffered from Synesthesia - the neurological condition that blurs the senses. Messiaen called it "colored hearing." So it seems only natural that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center would create a music video of painters in the act of creating vivid and colorful art to the music of Messiaen.

Thanks to Michael Barone for finding this video!

Levine: The Arrangement is Perfect

Posted at 4:32 PM on October 22, 2009 by Gillian Martin (2 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Conductor James Levine found himself taking an unexpected medical leave a few weeks ago, as we reported previously on Classical Notes.

He was supposed to be back in action tonight with the Boston Symphony, but now he'll wait until October 30th.

With this being his third medical leave in the last five years, some wonder if his jobs as music director of both the Metropolitan Opera (in NYC) and the Boston Symphony are too much for him to handle, but he says no:

"The way it works is much more stimulating and much more in balance in terms of artistic growth and artistic content than it would be if I did one or the other."

Compared to holding jobs in New York and Munich, as he used to do, it's a piece of cake. And everybody else is doing it. Read more about it here.


Clubbin' with the Cello

Posted at 11:30 PM on October 21, 2009 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

Matt Haimovitz is one of the best cellists in the world today, and you're liable to see him play just about anywhere.

Haimovitz is midway through his "Figment" Tour, saluting contemporary music icon Elliott Carter and also bringing together a wide range of important new music for cello and electronics. Look for Haimovitz next week, just up the block from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.....at the Dakota Jazz Club.

The Haimovitz Dakota gig is October 28th at 7pm.

There's a lot more about this innovative young artist when you click here.

Classical is back, baby!

Posted at 12:35 PM on October 18, 2009 by Alison Young
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

The "dude's" in his new gig and the city of angels is going wild.

Quincy Jones offered his opinion: "Gustavo is the ultimate classical rock star. What he brings to Los Angeles is a transcendence of musical talent. Classical is back, baby!"

Who Cares if You Boo?

Posted at 2:28 PM on October 15, 2009 by Rex Levang (1 Comments)
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

Here's a note from the website of conductor Leonard Slatkin, about "change in the air" at the Detroit Symphony.

It dates from September 23--but there's more than a whiff of April 1 here . . .


The US needs 'El Sistema'

Posted at 9:09 AM on October 15, 2009 by Alison Young
Filed under: Musician stories, Programs

Last week we broadcast the live concert of Gustavo Dudamel in his new role as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Tonight, we'll rebroadcast that amazing concert at 8:00 on SymphonyCast.

The "dude" is Venezuelan and the most famous and successful graduate of their system of music education that helps disadvantaged youths get off the streets to make music and become better citizens in the process. It's called "El Sistema" and it just might be making its way to the US.

The New England Conservatory in Boston has just begun a fellowship program. It provides tuition-free instruction and a living stipend for young postgraduate musicians who want to develop 'El Sistema' programs in the U.S. and beyond.

I'd call that a very good start.

Sing Outside the YouTube

Posted at 6:37 AM on October 5, 2009 by John Birge
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

Along with the start of their new season, the Minneapolis choral ensemble VocalEssence just unveiled a new video to communicate the essence of their artistic mission: Sing Outside the Box:

Meanwhile, as reported earlier in this space, the Minnesota Opera also has viral video aspirations, except they prefer to Sing Inside the Shower:

Is James Levine Overextended?

Posted at 6:12 PM on October 4, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Musician stories

Last week, conductor James Levine announced that he had to withdraw from several high-profile performances over the next few weeks. He needed surgery for a herniated disc in his back.

But the show must go on--and that left Levine's main employers, the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony, scrambling for substitutes.

At the BSO, assistant conductors Shi-Yeon Sung and Julian Kuerti stepped in to conduct last week's concerts at Symphony Hall. Daniele Gatti had a full two days' notice when he agreed to lead the BSO in their gala concert to open Carnegie Hall's season.

At the Met, former Minnesota Orchestra music director Edo de Waart will take over Levine's scheduled performances of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier later this month.

This medical leave is Mr. Levine's third in five years, which has some wondering if he's simply doing too much. Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe examines the issue here.

Stephen Hough: Foot Fetish?

Posted at 8:49 AM on September 29, 2009 by John Birge
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

You might wonder, after reading recent blog posts by this superb English pianist currently performing in Minneapolis.

Last week, he featured the fashion-forward feet of friend and former Juilliard colleague Bob Neu, now VP of the Minnesota Orchestra:



A few days later, Hough featured his own feet -- au naturel, this time -- at a local Nicollette Avenue pedicurist:


Be sure to tune in for Hough's live broadcast this Friday night at 8p on Classical MPR!

RIP Alicia de Larrocha

Posted at 9:50 AM on September 26, 2009 by Alison Young (2 Comments)
Filed under: Musician stories

Alicia de Larrocha was an unlikely concert pianist. She was 4'9" with tiny hands, but somehow managed to make a huge sound. She always said for her it was more important to convey tone colors and poetry than pyrotechnics. But listen to the sheer power in this performance of Enrique Granados.

Her mother and aunt studied with Granados and it was said Alicia was partial to his music. She introduced him as well as other Spanish masters to the piano world.

Alicia de Larrocha died last night in Barcelona. She was 86.


Four More Years! (For Osmo, That is)

Posted at 1:05 PM on September 24, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Musician stories

Many people will be very happy to hear that Osmo Vanska has renewed his contract with the Minnesota Orchestra.

I can remember being strongly encouraged by a friend, years ago, to come to Orchestra Hall to hear Vanska's work in a memorable concert with Joshua Bell as the soloist. At that point, Vanska was a guest, not yet music director. But there was a rapport that was hard to miss--which will now be continuing through the 2014-15 season. (That seems like five more years--though it's actually a four-year extension to the agreement already in place.)

Do you have favorite moments from Osmo's concerts or recordings? Future projects you'd like to see conductor and orchestra undertake?

Wilma Cozart Fine: She put Minneapolis on the classical map -- with a bang!

Posted at 9:04 AM on September 24, 2009 by John Birge (1 Comments)
Filed under: Musician stories, The blog

Wilma Cozart Fine died Monday at age 82.

You may not know her name, but you probably have been touched by her work. She was a record producer for Mercury Living Presence in the 1950's and early 60's. Mercury Living Presence recordings gained a cult following among audiophiles, and popular success among music lovers for their great artists and spectacular impeccable production.

The group that became the most famous was the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and conductor Antal Doráti. They scored a Gold Record hit with their 1958 recording of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," a hi-fi extravaganza that included historic canons from West Point, giant bells at Riverside Church, and extra brass from the U of MN Band. Remember the cover art?


Wilma Cozart Fine started her career as Antal Dorati's personal secretary. She became vice president of Mercury Records in 1954. She came out of retirement in the 1990's to produce again, this time to satisfy fans who were clamoring for CD re-issues of the Mercury Living Presence LP's.


Report from 10th and Marquette

Posted at 3:41 PM on September 23, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

Pianist Stephen Hough is blogging about his travels, and specifically--since he's back in our area, preparing for the opening weeks of the Minnesota Orchestra's season--what he's encountering in downtown Minneapolis. The sights! The tastes! The socks!

Boos at Met Opera's Opening Night

Posted at 4:22 AM on September 22, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Concerts, In the media, Musician stories

A preview piece in yesterday's New York Times predicted that "the Tosca that makes its debut tonight at the Metropolitan Opera is bound to annoy a least a few opera patrons." That proved to be an understatement.

The crowd was enthusiastic about soprano Karita Mattila in the title role, and had great applause for James Levine and the orchestra. But when Swiss stage director Luc Bondy and his production team came out to take their bows, the booing from the audience was so vehement that the management brought down the curtain.

Bondy's production replaced a traditional and much-beloved Franco Zeffirelli production that had been in the Met's repertory since 1985.

Read more about the new production and the audience's reaction to it here.

Read Mr. Zeffirelli's rather catty remarks about Mr. Bondy and his work here (registration required).

Dancin' with the Opera Stars

Posted at 9:25 PM on September 21, 2009 by John Birge (1 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories, The blog

A recent New York Times profile calls her "Opera's Coolest Soprano."

While I'm always a little suspicious of the press-agency hype lurking behind such epithets, Danielle de Niese certainly is a performer of charisma and pedigree. She just released a new Mozart CD, and this summer found her back at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, where in 2005 she showed off not only her ability to fearlessly tackle Handel's soprano fireworks, but also to do so while showing off her considerable Terpsichorean skills. The New York Times profile mentions that she travels with 20-30 pairs of shoes. Presumably some of those are dancing shoes. Check out the moves:


Hooray for the Home Team!

Posted at 10:28 AM on September 16, 2009 by Alison Young (1 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

He's not just an American in Paris - but a Minnesotan in Paris!

Organist Joseph Ripka is from Cambridge, Mn and studied at St. Cloud State. He won the Dublin International Organ Competition last year and is playing on the 5-manual, 100-stop, 1862 Cavaillé-Coll organ at St. Sulpice in Paris - the same organ played by Widor and Dupre.

Check out how the stops have to be manipulated by an assistant (resident organist Daniel Roth) and the conversation never stops throughout the performance!

Thanks Michael Barone for telling us about this cool behind-the-scenes video!


SPCO Welcomes New Musicians

Posted at 11:30 AM on September 11, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra welcomes two new musicians to their ranks today.

Violinist Sunmi Chang fills one of the two violin positions that have been open since 2006.

Cellist David Huckaby fills the position vacated by the retirement of Daryl Skobba in 2007.

Ms. Chang and Mr. Huckaby jump right in. They'll both play in tonight's season opening concert with Douglas Boyd conducting Beethoven's famous Fifth Symphony.

(Mr. Boyd, by the way, gives his last concerts as an SPCO Artistic Partner this month. At six years, he is the longest serving Artistic Partner to date.)

Happy 350th, Henry Purcell

Posted at 4:42 PM on September 10, 2009 by Rex Levang (1 Comments)
Filed under: Musician stories

Two video tributes to Henry Purcell, on his 350th birthday. This aria from "Dido and Aeneas" is his most famous composition, with the possible exception of the theme that Benjamin Britten used in his "Young Person's Guide."

The first version features Janet Baker, and comes from the 1960s, if you didn't guess from the b/w photography and vintage costuming. But it's still capable of causing a shiver. The second is engrossing in its own right, unusual instrument and all.


Anna Netrebko v. Microphone

Posted at 8:02 PM on September 7, 2009 by John Birge
Filed under: Musician stories

Guess who wins?? She is an opera singer, after all...

With a tip o' the hat to the Opera Chic, here's Anna Netrebko at a huge big-Ruble-ticket charity concert on Red Square, featuring Mother Russia's crappiest PA system (tho in fairness, it may well have been the pre-concert downpour that caused the crackling).
Take that, microphone!!:

Of course, we shouldn't be too surprised, considering she's Anna "Get your Gun" Netrebko. From her website gallery:

anna get your gun2.jpg

anna get your gun1.jpg

anna get your gun1.jpg

Listening to music is just monkey-business

Posted at 1:37 PM on September 2, 2009 by Alison Young
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musical philosophy, Musician stories

He's a cellist and composer but his study has all the hallmarks of scientific research.

David Teie is working on a theory that explains the effect of music on emotions.

It sounds simple enough: we react to music that reminds us of familiar sounds like laughter, heartbeats, or a mother's cooing. But he's not using humans to prove his theory, rather he's using our ancestors, monkeys.

End of an Era in Cincinnati

Posted at 2:04 PM on September 1, 2009 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Musician stories

Sad news this morning from Cincinnati about the death of longtime conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, Erich Kunzel.

A year ago, Kunzel took the Pops to China, where they played during the Beijing Olympics.

Kunzel was diagnosed with cancer earlier this spring. He was 74.

Nadja and Conlon cut to save money

Posted at 1:00 PM on August 25, 2009 by Alison Young
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Yesterday the Star Tribune reported the Minnesota Orchestra would cut James Conlon's October concerts and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's February concerts "for budgetary reasons."

Read more here.

Imani Winds on SPS and in the WSJ

Posted at 10:32 AM on August 23, 2009 by Alison Young
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories, Programs

Great article in the Wall Street Journal about our featured guests on Saint Paul Sunday .

R. I. P. Hildegard Behrens

Posted at 3:50 PM on August 21, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Musician stories

The German soprano Hildegard Behrens died earlier this week, at 72. Many people will remember her, especially, for her leading roles in the Metropolitan's "Ring" cycle in the 1980s, which were seen widely on TV and video. Words like "commitment" and "intensity" are used again and again to describe her performances--this clip from Strauss's "Elektra" will give an idea why.

(You can read more about her life and career in this obituary from the Philadelphia Enquirer.)

A Handy Man for Classical Music

Posted at 1:19 AM on August 20, 2009 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

I have always been a big fan of James Taylor.

Now I'm an even bigger fan.

The singer/songwriter plans to donate his $500,000 in earning from a five-day music festival at Tanglewood next week to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Boston Globe reported that Taylor decided to donate his earnings because he and his wife are concerned about diminishing support for classical music. The couple also donated over $700,000 between 2005 and 2008 to the orchestra, which makes is summer home at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts.

Bravo, JT.

Mozart's Death: Strep Throat?

Posted at 8:51 AM on August 18, 2009 by Ward Jacobson
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

There has been plenty of speculation about what caused the premature death of Mozart a month short of his 36th birthday in 1791. Watch the 1984 movie Amadeus and you may come away thinking Mozart was poisoned by Antonio Salieri. Personally, I never bought into that. The latest theory? Perhaps it was a bad case of strep throat that ended Mozart's life. Thanks to Performance Today's Suzanne Schaffer for the heads up.

Adulation for Osmo

Posted at 12:32 PM on August 17, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Awards & Accomplishments, Concerts, In the media, Musician stories

"The high quality of the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä's work is beyond dispute."

That's the kind of review anyone would be proud to send home to mother, and it's the opening sentence in today's New York Times review of the Minnesota Orchestra music director's gig at the Mostly Mozart Festival this weekend.

The review is not just a gush-fest, though. Read the whole thing here (registration required).

"Is there a pianist in the house?!"

Posted at 9:19 AM on August 14, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

For your Friday, a heartwarming story of how conductor Bramwell Tovey saved the day for one grateful young couple.

Thanks to Performance Today's Suzanne Schaffer for the tip.

Mark O'Connor's Americana

Posted at 10:27 AM on August 10, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

Maybe you've heard us play some of fiddler Mark O'Connor's Americana Symphony on the air. Here's a link to a video that tells you a little more about the man and his music.

Thanks to Michael Barone for the tip.

Galway still rocks at 70

Posted at 10:03 AM on August 6, 2009 by Alison Young
Filed under: Concerts, Musician stories

James Galway turns 70 on December 8. He's celebrating this birthday-year by giving tons of concerts and workshops, and accepting the Life Time achievment award from the National Flute Association next week - where he hopes to break the world record for largest flute ensemble.

It was a bit off my radar since this isn't exactly classical, but Sir James will be rocking out TONIGHT with the Cuban American band Tiempo Libre at the Dakota.

More Signs of the Recession

Posted at 3:14 AM on August 1, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

The recession has hit the arts hard, and things could get worse as funders, audiences and sponsors continue to reassess their own financial positions.

Here are a couple of recent examples:

In Baltimore on Thursday, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony accepted a significant pay cut--not their first concession this year.

In Ireland, the Arts Council has proposed cuts that would eliminate the country's three existing opera companies, and replace them with a new one: but "staff in the existing companies would not automatically transfer to the new company."

Remembering Michael Steinberg

Posted at 2:32 PM on July 28, 2009 by Rex Levang (2 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

As you probably know by now, Michael Steinberg died over the weekend. He had been a critic, an artistic advisor to orchestras and festivals, and above all, a writer whose books and program notes set the standard for knowledgeable, elegant writing on music. He was a revered figure (and these words somehow fail to do justice to that).

Here in Minnesota, where he made his home, he was more than that. For many, he was a personal friend. For many of us who didn't know him personally, he was still a kind of personal presence: as a lecturer at Orchestra Hall, as a guest on MPR, or sometimes just a fellow audience member, since his attendance at musical events was indefatigable.

Online remembrances and obituaries have begun to appear, with more to follow: here's just one, that blends the professional and personal nicely.

Do you have your own recollections of Michael Steinberg, or thoughts on the contribution he made? Share your memories below.


New Mozart!

Posted at 12:29 AM on July 28, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

A busy (and prolific) composer like Mozart was writing for the moment, not organizing his papers for posterity. So it's not surprising that a few things got lost or forgotten along the way.

The International Mozarteum Foundation announced last week that two previously undiscovered piano pieces by Mozart had been found. They're being closed-mouth about the details right now, but all will be revealed next week, when pianist Florian Birsak performs the pieces in Mozart's hometown of Salzburg.

Thanks to webmaster Michael Wells for the tip.

Rolando Villazon Update

Posted at 12:52 PM on July 22, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Musician stories

Back in April, I blogged about tenor Rolando Villazon's latest vocal problems.

The latest news is that he's had the surgery, and things are going well--but he's not sure when he'll perform again. Read his statement on his website.

Get a broader perspective of what he might have to cancel here.

Fickle Finger

Posted at 4:03 PM on July 21, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Here's wishing a full and speedy recovery to Andrew Litton, conductor, and particularly pianist, after a recent injury to his finger.

Wagner Controversy at LA Opera

Posted at 10:42 AM on July 20, 2009 by Gillian Martin (2 Comments)
Filed under: In the media, Musician stories

Opera companies must plot seasons out years in advance. So when Los Angeles Opera puts up its new production of Richard Wagner's 4-part Ring cycle next spring, and the two-month long, region-wide cultural festival associated with it called Ring Festival L.A., you know the plans have been in the works for quite some time.

But some in LA want a change of plan. Last week, an LA county supervisor called for LA Opera to "delete the focus on Wagner and incorporate other composers."

Read more about the controversy here.

Read a response from the music critic of the LA Times here.


Michael Jackson and Classical Music

Posted at 10:51 AM on July 13, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

According to one musician who met him earlier this year, Michael Jackson had more interest in classical music than you might expect. Details here.

Another Good Year for MN Opera

Posted at 6:25 AM on July 12, 2009 by Gillian Martin
Filed under: Fun finds, In the media, Musician stories

At a time when so many arts organizations around the country are folding, or on the brink of doing so, I was excited to see that the Minnesota Opera finished its fiscal year in the black yet again. Read more about it here.

Another Opera Mishap

Posted at 10:52 AM on July 10, 2009 by Rex Levang
Filed under: Fun finds, Musician stories

From the accident-prone world of opera comes news that while singing Rossini's Barber of Seville, mezzo-soprano Joyce Di Donato broke one of the bones in her leg -- but carried on and completed the performance.

And if that suggests any plays on words. . . . well, they've been thought of already. Here's her own account of that night, puns and all.

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