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Deceptive Cadence : NPR
Deceptive Cadence un-stuffs the world of classical music, which is both fusty and ferociously alive.
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13Hej, z gory, z gory

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    Hej, z gory, z gory
    Album
    Very Best of Gorecki
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    2016

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Polish composer Henryk Górecki, in Zakopane, Poland, in 1994 — two years after a recording of his Symphony No. 3 became a surprise hit. Górecki died in 2010.

Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

From its mesmerizing ebb and flow and the purity of the choristers' blend alone, you'd be forgiven for thinking this might be one of Henryk Górecki's many sacred choral works. There's a palpable air of serenity and reflection. But instead, it's a song about a little pony and a blue-eyed girl.

Additional Information:

Translation of 'Hej, z góry'

Hey, down, downhill! My grey-brown pony, move those little legs of yours.
To my girl, to my only one, to my girl with the sky-blue eyes.
My young, beautiful charming girl, who are you staring at? At you, Jasio, at you my handsome, you with the dark horse. Hey, down, downhill!

That duality is part of Górecki's genius. This rather simple arrangement of a folk song from the rural Kurpie region of northeast Poland holds power beyond its purpose.

In Górecki's modesty comes something profoundly moving for some listeners. Millions of listeners, in fact, considering that this song projects a similar vibe to the composer's popular Symphony No. 3, "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." A recording of that work surprised everyone when it topped the charts in 1992. Its somber, churning waves of grief were dismissed by a few as lacking the depth and complexity of his earlier works — but the album sold over a million copies.

Songs We Love

Songs We Love

Here, a fine regional mixed choir from northeast Poland shines as it pays close attention to Górecki's dynamic markings. The sound comes in waves as the Choir of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic in Bialystok, led by Violetta Bielecka, swells proudly, then delicately recedes to a near whisper. Long notes, held at the ends of phrases, are delivered fresh and clearly focused, making it all sound so elemental.

Sometimes less really is more.

The Very Best of Górecki is out now on the DUX label.

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Supporters of the United States men's national soccer team sing the national anthem before a Copa América match against Paraguay in Philadelphia June 11.

Nicholas Kamm /AFP/Getty Images

For this most American of holidays, how do we define our music? What makes it uniquely American?

In 1929 George Gershwin wrote that it's "something deeply rooted in our soil." Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop said, "It's highly energized, rhythmic music derived from the blurring of lines between popular and serious styles."

What Makes Music American? Searching For The Great American Symphony

I think you can hear all of that, and much more, in this five-hour playlist of American tunes selected from a wide swath of mainly classical sources. We celebrate Scott Joplin's ragtime opera Treemonisha and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, but also contemporary works like David Lang's The National Anthems, Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman and music from the new album by ETHEL with Native American composer Robert Mirabal. There's also room for Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Elaine Stritch — and a non-American piece that's become an Independence Day staple, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

In other words, a little something for everyone. Happy Fourth!

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A New Opera Illuminates The 'Lavender Scare,' A Little-Explored Era In Gay History

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Timothy Laughlin (Aaron Blake, left) meets Hawkins Fuller (Joseph Lattanzi) in Cincinnati Opera's world premiere production of Fellow Travelers, based on the novel by Thomas Mallon.

Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera

In the 1950s, as members of Congress were rooting out suspected communists in government and Hollywood, they broadened their search to include homosexuals and lesbians, under the theory that closeted gays could be more easily blackmailed into revealing government secrets. That crusade, dubbed the "lavender scare," is at the center of Fellow Travelers, a new stage production that received its world premiere last night at Cincinnati Opera.

The show is based on a historical novel of the same name, written by Thomas Mallon. Mallon defies stererotyping: He's devoutly Catholic, fiercely conservative, and gay. And he shares those traits with Timothy Laughlin, one of the two main characters in his book.

"The anticommunism that he has, which is fervent and real, and the Catholicism that he has, which is fervent and real, I never saw as being hopelessly incompatible with his sexual desires and orientation," Mallon says.

Mallon, who lives in Washington, D.C., draws on the city's history for his books — from Lincoln's assassination to Watergate.

During the McCarthy era, anything connected with homosexuality could lead to scandal. Mallon points to the example of Lester Hunt, a real-life senator from Wyoming who committed suicide in his office after the arrest of his son for allegedly soliciting gay sex in Lafayette Square. (Author Alan Drury took pieces of the Lester Hunt story and used them in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Advise and Consent.)

The main characters in Fellow Travelers — both the novel and the opera — work for the government at a time when even the suspicion that they might be gay called for a lie detector test.

The opera was developed as part of a new works program at Cincinnati Opera. The creative team includes three gay men in their 30s: director Kevin Newbury, librettist Greg Pierce and composer Gregory Spears, who says he and his colleagues were drawn to the personalities in Mallon's novel.

"It was hard for me to understand what it would have been like to be fighting Communism and to be Catholic and to also be gay in 1950s D.C., and so I was intrigued by the characters," Spears says.

The story's two protagonists are gay men who have to hide their love. One of them winds up marrying a woman to advance his career. To convey the emotions of a time when gay love was "forbidden" love, Spears went back even further for inspiration: to troubadour music from the Middle Ages, which, he says, is "music that really is about unrequited love, courtly love, impossible love."

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The consequences of being found out were real. Thousands of people lost their jobs, and restrictions on hiring gays in government remained in place into the 1990s. Jamie Shoemaker, a linguist with the National Security Administration, says his record was spotless when, one day, he was called to a meeting.

"The first thing they said is, 'We understand you're leading a gay lifestyle,'
he says. "And I said, well, I didn't think I was leading it, but I did admit that I was gay."

Shoemaker's security badge was taken away, and he was assigned make-work. But he fought back.

"I talked to them a lot about how dangerous this is, to have this secret community among them — probably 10 percent of the workforce — hiding. And I heard from them that about 50 percent of the hierarchy agreed with me, that this was a big battle behind the scenes," Shoemaker says.

After enlisting the help of Frank Kameny, the astronomer who turned activist after being fired from his government job for being gay, Shoemaker was reinstated. His story made the front page of the Washington Post in 1980. Others weren't as fortunate, and composer Gregory Spears says Fellow Travelers serves to remind the world of their stories.

"So much of gay history — it's not even that it's forgotten, it's that it was never recorded, in a certain way, and it was forgotten before it was remembered," Spears says. "I think that it's really everyone's responsibility, but particularly my generation's responsibility, to make sure that we make art and books that continue to bring that history to the surface."

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An American Opera Impresario Takes His Final Bow

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  • Carmen Balthrop (center) sang the title role in Scott Joplin's Treemonisha in the first fully staged professional production, at Houston Grand Opera in 1975. This photograph dates from the company's 1981-82 revival. Hide caption Carmen Balthrop (center) sang the title role in Scott Joplin's Treemonisha in the first fully staged professional production, at Houston Grand Opera in 1975. This photograph dates from the company's 1981-82 revival. Previous Next Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera Achives
  • Inspired by a production he saw in Cold War East Berlin, David Gockley presented a full operatic version of Gershwin's classic Porgy and Bess at Houston Grand Opera in 1976. The production traveled to Broadway, where it won a Tony Award. Hide caption Inspired by a production he saw in Cold War East Berlin, David Gockley presented a full operatic version of Gershwin's classic Porgy and Bess at Houston Grand Opera in 1976. The production traveled to Broadway, where it won a Tony Award. Previous Next Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera Archives
  • After a chance meeting with Leonard Bernstein (center) in New York, Gockley (right) asked him to compose a work for Houston Grand Opera. In 1983 the company gave the world premiere of Bernstein's A Quiet Place, an acerbic family drama. Hide caption After a chance meeting with Leonard Bernstein (center) in New York, Gockley (right) asked him to compose a work for Houston Grand Opera. In 1983 the company gave the world premiere of Bernstein's A Quiet Place, an acerbic family drama. Previous Next Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera Archives
  • A scene from the world premiere of Bernstein's A Quiet Place with Peter Kazaras as François and Sheri Greenawald as Dede (left) and Carolyne James as Mrs. Doc and Peter Harrower as Doc (right). Hide caption A scene from the world premiere of Bernstein's A Quiet Place with Peter Kazaras as François and Sheri Greenawald as Dede (left) and Carolyne James as Mrs. Doc and Peter Harrower as Doc (right). Previous Next Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera Archives
  • For Houston Grand Opera's 1984-1985 season, Gockley (left) presented the American premiere of Akhnaten by Philp Glass. Hide caption For Houston Grand Opera's 1984-1985 season, Gockley (left) presented the American premiere of Akhnaten by Philp Glass. Previous Next Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera Archives
  • James Maddalena (right) starred as Richard Nixon in the 1987 Houston Grand Opera world premiere of Nixon in China by John Adams. James Duykers sang the role of Mao Tse-tung. Hide caption James Maddalena (right) starred as Richard Nixon in the 1987 Houston Grand Opera world premiere of Nixon in China by John Adams. James Duykers sang the role of Mao Tse-tung. Previous Next Jim Caldwell/Houston Grand Opera Archives
  • Adams (right) goes over details of Nixon in China with conductor John DeMain in Houston in 1987. Hide caption Adams (right) goes over details of Nixon in China with conductor John DeMain in Houston in 1987. Previous Next Houston Grand Opera Archives
  • Stewart Wallace's opera Harvey Milk, recounting the story of the slain gay rights activist and San Francisco supervisor, opened at Houston Grand Opera in 1995. This photograph is from the West Coast premiere in San Francisco the following year. Hide caption Stewart Wallace's opera Harvey Milk, recounting the story of the slain gay rights activist and San Francisco supervisor, opened at Houston Grand Opera in 1995. This photograph is from the West Coast premiere in San Francisco the following year. Previous Next Ron Scherl/San Francisco Opera
  • Houston Grand Opera gave the world premiere of Mark Adamo's Little Women (based on the Louisa May Alcott book) in 1998 and revived it the following season. A young Joyce DiDonato (right) played the part of Meg, with Stephanie Novacek as Jo. Hide caption Houston Grand Opera gave the world premiere of Mark Adamo's Little Women (based on the Louisa May Alcott book) in 1998 and revived it the following season. A young Joyce DiDonato (right) played the part of Meg, with Stephanie Novacek as Jo. Previous Next George Hixson/Houston Grand Opera Archives
  • The 2007 Civil War drama Appomattox by Philip Glass was one of the world premieres David Gockley presented after assuming the directorship of the San Francisco Opera in 2006. Hide caption The 2007 Civil War drama Appomattox by Philip Glass was one of the world premieres David Gockley presented after assuming the directorship of the San Francisco Opera in 2006. Previous Next Terrence McCarthy/San Francisco Opera

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In 1970, a young business school grad — and failed opera singer — named David Gockley landed a job as business manager of the Houston Grand Opera. After two years, at age 27, he moved up to general director.

Over the next 30 years, Gockley transformed the company into a hothouse for new and revived American opera. During his tenure in Houston, Gockley presented 35 world premieres, including John Adams' Nixon in China, Stewart Wallace's Harvey Milk, Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place, Mark Adamo's Little Women and three operas by Carlisle Floyd.

Gockley continued along the same path after moving to the San Francisco Opera in 2006. As general director he racked up more world premieres — Philip Glass' Civil War drama Appomattox and Christopher Theofanidis' 9/11 story Heart of a Soldier. A new opera from Bright Sheng, Dream of the Red Chamber, debuts this fall, and Tuesday Gockley announced Girls of the Golden West, an Adams opera premiering in November 2017.

Now this pioneering impresario is about to "pack it in," as he says in the audio feature above. Gockley will retire in July. To mark the occasion, the San Francisco Opera is throwing a little party for him Thursday that will include a number of singers ("my kiddies") whose careers he helped nurture, including Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Patricia Racette, René Pape and Dolora Zajick.

We asked Gockley to reminisce a little and tell a few stories about his early years and the great music he nurtured in Houston, beginning with his very first production of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah in 1972. That opera convinced him "there was an opportunity to have an American opera repertoire."

(Editor's Note: There is one mildly objectional word used twice during the audio feature.)

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Watch Yo-Yo Ma Play A Moving Tribute To Going Home

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Yo-Yo Ma plays "Going Home."

Credit: NPR

Since it was founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma 16 years ago, the Silk Road Ensemble — an artistic collective comprised of master musicians and other artists from more than 20 countries, spanning the globe — has become an incubator for inspiring cross-cultural collaborations.

A Music Documentary Is 'A Trojan Horse,' Says Oscar Winner Morgan Neville

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A Music Documentary Is 'A Trojan Horse,' Says Oscar Winner Morgan Neville

The group has also become the subject of a new documentary directed by filmmaker Morgan Neville, who won both an Oscar and a Grammy for his 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, which chronicled the paths of five backup singers from some of rock's biggest hits. This film, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, chronicles both the evolution of the group and personal journeys of some of its members — several of whom who have endured life-shattering tragedies.

Earlier this week, Ma and Neville joined me at HBO's headquarters in New York for a special evening to mark the release, which included this brief but beautiful performance by the cellist and a screening of the film.

As Neville and I discussed in a Q&A that followed the screening, the film hits upon many universal themes, including love and loss, immigration and isolation, and the twin missions of preserving cultures and moving traditions forward.

Spotlighting Background Singers In 'Twenty Feet From Stardom'

Music Articles

Spotlighting Background Singers In 'Twenty Feet From Stardom'

The film also explores the world-famous cellist's journey to shaping his own contributions. As Ma — who at just 7 years old performed with his sister for President John F. Kennedy after an introduction by none other than Leonard Bernstein — explains in the documentary, being a celebrated child prodigy meant that as a young man, he didn't necessarily have the chance to determine his own path. "When you grow up with something, you kind of don't make a choice," he tells Neville.

But as Ma told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel (in the audio linked above), a life in music has provided him with avenues to traverse an incredible amount of terrain — artistic, intellectual and emotional.

"I've always thought there's something that goes beyond the sound that we make. Isaac Stern said it, I think, best: Music is about what happens in between the notes. So it's not the notes themselves, which I think is a material thing. It's about how you get from one note to another."

Ma demonstrated that principle beautifully in a short, intimate performance he gave before we screened the film. He chose to perform his own solo arrangement of "Going Home," a tune with a long, long American — and multicultural — history.

As the cellist explained before he began to play, "Going Home" is adapted from a melody that appears in the second movement of Antonin Dvorak's beloved Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," and was inspired by indigenous and African-American sources. It has traditionally been sung with lyrics by William Arms Fisher, a Dvorak pupil, that transform it in to a spiritual-style song about death and the promise of heaven.

But on the Silk Road Ensemble's new album, made as a companion to the film, the group takes the tune to another destination. Guest banjo player Abigail Washburn and Chinese sheng master Wu Tong turn the tune toward China.

This theme — of exploring the idea of home very broadly, and embracing its expansive possibilities instead of limiting it parochially — preoccupies Ma and his Silk Road colleagues. It is communicated most eloquently this way.

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Kronos Quartet Wants To Give You Free Music — And Teach You How To Play It

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Kronos Quartet has commissioned 50 pieces of music for its latest project, Fifty for the Future.

Jay Blakesberg/Courtesy of the artist

Irish composer and violist Garth Knox recently wrote a piece called Satellites, which, he says, tries to express sounds he imagines coming from outer space. At a Carnegie Hall rehearsal studio, he explains how to play the piece to four 20-something musicians from San Francisco who call themselves the Friction Quartet. Knox says that to create these extraterrestrial sounds, he used an unconventional approach.

"The small techniques that are overlooked in classical music," he says, "and the little bow noises you can make by doing things not quite as your teacher showed you — but what you do when he's not looking. You can find amazing things. Bows and strings can work in many different ways."

Four days after the workshop, the Friction Quartet performed Knox's Satellites in a concert at Carnegie's Zankel Hall. It's all part of a project by the Kronos Quartet called Fifty for the Future. The group is commissioning 50 works from as many composers. It will premiere each piece, and then hold workshops with the composer and young musicians. Then the score will be posted on the Kronos website, free for anyone to download, along with performance and instructional videos.

Knox was paid for the commission, but the 59-year-old says he doesn't mind giving away the copyright in return for hearing Satellites performed around the world. "I'm very happy that people play my music," he says. "It's a delight for me. I want as many people to play it as possible. There's nothing secret about what I'm doing. I'm very happy to share it. And I find this whole project very generous; a show of generosity."

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The 25-year-old violist in the Friction Quartet, Taija Warbelow, says the project is a boon for young musicians.

"When you're starting out in chamber music, you often play Mozart or Haydn or things like this," she says, "and you don't get exposed to new classical music until much later in your career. It would have been great to have these pieces they're commissioning now when I was younger, because you learn a whole host of new techniques, and you help support the music that is being created now if you're exposed to it younger."

The five-year project has a budget of $1.5 million, funded in part by Carnegie Hall. Along with Satellites, the first group of commissions includes a piece for electronics and strings; quartet music from Serbia and Mali; and composer Wu Man's Four Chinese Paintings.

Wu is a virtuoso of the pipa, a pear-shaped, four-stringed instrument sometimes called the Chinese lute. And she wants to get that sound from a string quartet.

"I'm not trying to imitate the bow sound," she says. "I'm hoping bowed instruments could imitate my plucking, the pipa sound — the kind of bending the note, the slide, that's on the left hand. So that brings a different language, very different from European music."

Wu came to New York to show three young quartets how to play the piece after Kronos premiered it.

Kronos Quartet led a workshop for young professional string quartets to explore new works commissioned as part of "Fifty For The Future."

Stefan Cohen/Courtesy of Carnegie Hall

Kronos violinist David Harrington says when all 50 of the commissions are delivered, the result will be a mosaic of what is possible in string quartet music, available for anybody to learn. And Fifty for the Future has some big names on tap, including works for string quartet by Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

"What I hope will happen is that the art form is just going to expand," he says. "And the explorations that will be possible from this body of work will just bring a lot of new energy into the field."

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Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in New York in February 2015.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in New York in February 2015.

Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

It's not quite right to say the news came as a shock when the Metropolitan Opera announced Thursday that Yannick Nézet-Séguin would become the house's new music director, beginning in the 2020-21 season. He follows in the footsteps of James Levine, who said in April that he was stepping down after leading the Met for four decades.

Nézet-Séguin, a 41-year-old Québécois conductor, is also the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He had long been the subject of intense speculation by opera fans, who thought he might ascend to one of the world's most prominent and prestigious posts.

Discussion has also ranged wide in the classical music community about what such a succession plan means during a particularly bruising era at the Met. Limp ticket sales and financial woes are ongoing. The wounds of a bitter public battle between the house's management and unionized musicians — which nearly led to a lockout two years ago — are still healing. There was also a stinging appraisal, published last year in the New Yorker, of the Met's internecine warfares, even among the company's board members.

Nézet-Séguin's news came in two bursts Thursday morning. The first was that the affable Canadian was being granted the Met podium, along with a title that has only been given to three conductors in the New York house's storied history. Less than 20 minutes later, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced he is also extending his contract there until at least the 2025-26 season.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin Conducts Dvorak at the Met

Overture to Dvorak's Rusalka.

[Interactive:Yannick Nézet-Séguin Conducts Dvorak at the Met]

Overture to Dvorak's Rusalka.

Credit: Metropolitan Opera

I spoke to Nézet-Séguin by phone Friday in Tokyo, where he is on a tour of Asia with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The conductor was cagey about what he plans to do at the Met in terms of repertoire; he said that more details will come this fall, though he did say that his engagement leading Wagner's Flying Dutchman in the spring of 2017 "is maybe the beginning of more involvement in the next few seasons in German repertoire." He also said he is beginning to think about how his two East Coast appointments might intersect collaboratively.

But what he was more interested in discussing now is how he envisions his role in the Met's mission — and how he is already trying to signal his intentions to the world.

Shortly after yesterday's announcements, the Met organized a livestreamed video presentation with Nézet-Séguin, who appeared via video hookup from Osaka. Gathered in New York were Met general manager Peter Gelb; two leaders of the Met's board, chairman Ann Ziff and president/CEO Judith-Ann Corrente; Jessica Phillips, acting principal clarinetist in the orchestra and the chairman of the musicians' union committee; and the orchestra's concertmaster, David Chan. (I have known Phillips as a friend for more than 20 years, and was unaware she would be part of the presentation.)

Nézet-Séguin said in the Friday interview that the symbolism of bringing that particular group of people together was highly deliberate, given the Met's widely known struggles between all those constituencies. "You know, one function of the music director — or one privilege, I should say, which becomes a function or even a mission of mine — is that the music director is at the center of all of these forces," he said. "There are many, many, many components of the Met family, and an opera house as big as this one is a huge family. And I see the role of the music director as being maybe someone who can bring people together, the way a conductor is bringing people together, whether it's onstage or in the pit."

"I believe this is the role, institutionally, that I should have," he continued, "and this is why we did the announcement in this significant way. I'm a team player, and what attracts me to the Met is that it has the potential to be just the greatest team in the world. It was symbolic. It was an indication of the spirit in which I already intend to have my own voice in the whole Met family."

He said there were pressing reasons to have made the announcement at this particular juncture, even though he was halfway around the globe at the time: "First, James Levine announced his resignation and became music director emeritus. A house with the importance of the Metropolitan Opera has got to have a plan in place, so that at least we have a certain vision of where it's going. Even if I'm not on the podium so much in the next season, I will start immediately being involved in all the planning, because it is all four to five years in advance. So it's necessary to have someone there right away to have someone there in charge of the music."

"I can understand how some people who don't know how the opera world works are a bit surprised that it's only starting in 2020," he said. "But quite frankly, reading some of the articles today, I was surprised that some of the insiders of our world did not understand that actually, 2020 is the season that we're planning right now. The rest of the seasons are planned and cast. Everybody knows who's conducting, who's singing. A house like the Met is always planned four to five seasons in advance. There was no way I could start earlier."

"The second reason to make the announcement now is that this is the end of the season for both the Met and for Philadelphia, so I think it was only fitting," Nézet-Séguin said. "And that leads to the third reason. It's important to have a certain clarity about my commitment to both institutions, both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. Of course I'm aware that there's been some speculation for quite some time, and nobody is so surprised that I'm here at the Met now. But that also means that there was a lot of speculation in Philadelphia about whether or not I would renew. And I'm so happy that the two institutions could come together in a really collaborative spirit, in terms of what it indicating what it means for the future, and have this secured. And then we can really imagine, plan and dream, together and separately, where we're heading for."

Nézet-Séguin adds that he believes that his ascension at the Met might also mark an opportunity for the house to reshape its identity — not just in the opera world, but as a wider presence in New York.

"There is this role for New York as a city, as a community, and as a very diverse city, to maybe diversify our offerings — to be the house of the entire city, and therefore maybe be an example also internationally of how we can be the house of every people, and make opera passionately relevant to as many people as possible," the conductor said. "One deep value that I have in the next months, and years, is to work with the Met's staff and with every artist who are giving their skills and their hearts to this institution, to develop and imagine how the Met can be as present as possible in the hearts of New Yorkers and everyone else in the world."

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Cellist Yo-Yo Ma (front row, second from left) and fellow members of the Silk Road Ensemble.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma (front row, second from left) and fellow members of the Silk Road Ensemble.

Courtesy of the artists

One of the world's most beloved classical musicians, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and acclaimed film director Morgan Neville will join NPR Music Tuesday, June 7 at 6 p.m. ET for a special live event in advance of the theatrical release of the new documentary film, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The event will take place at the HBO Screening Room at 1100 Avenue of the Americas, New York City. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m.

Members of the Silk Road Ensemble, founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, perform together at the ACME Studio in Brooklyn, New York in October 2013.

Field Recordings

Welcome To Yo-Yo's Playhouse

The evening will feature a musical introduction by Ma — the winner of 18 Grammy Awards — and a screening of the documentary, followed by a Q&A with its director, Morgan Neville, and NPR Music reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas.

The film is a moving portrait of Ma and some of his collaborators in the Silk Road Ensemble, a collective comprised of master musicians from more than 20 countries, and their work together that both honors and transcends their cultural traditions.

Darlene Love, one of the background singers featured in Twenty Feet From Stardom, didn't receive credit for singing hits in the 1950s and '60s and says her career was derailed by legendary producer Phil Spector.

Music Articles

Spotlighting Background Singers In 'Twenty Feet From Stardom'

Neville is the director of the Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom, which chronicles the stories of backup singers who gave voice to some of rock's greatest hits, but never became household names themselves.

A limited number of free tickets for the Tuesday event are available to the public. To score up to a pair of tickets, email us at nprmusicevents@gmail.com to enter to win. (Winners will be notified by Sunday, June 5.)

Video coverage of the event will be available at a future date on our website.

Silkroad YouTube Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.
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Michael Chioldi (far left) as Baron Scarpia in a January production of Puccini's Tosca by the newly reformed New York City Opera.

Michael Chioldi (far left) as Baron Scarpia in a January production of Puccini's Tosca by the newly reformed New York City Opera.

Sarah Shatz/New York City Opera

When the New York City Opera (NYCO) announced its final performances and imminent bankruptcy in September 2013, opera lovers, not just in Manhattan, were shocked. How could a 70-year-old company, dubbed "The People's Opera," which nurtured the careers of emerging stars like Beverly Sills and Plácido Domingo, fall so far and suddenly cease to be?

Almost as soon as the doors were shuttered, suitors lined up to try to reboot the company. Only in January did a victor emerge in the form of NYCO Renaissance, a group chaired by hedge fund manager Roy G. Niederhoffer, which announced the company's return with a production of Puccini's Tosca.

Michael Capasso is the NYCO's new general director. He formerly led Dicapo Opera, a small Manhattan-based company. Wednesday, in a telephone interview, he talked about what's ahead. The conversation was edited for clarity and concision.


Tom Huizenga: I was surprised, I must admit, to see such a wide-ranging, ambitious season announced so soon after the company reopened just a few months ago.

Michael Capasso: I'm proud of the kind of season it shaped up to be, because it really evokes what I think what City Opera always was in the past in terms of the way it serves the opera world, in its breadth of repertoire. We have everything from Baroque to extremely contemporary to a big Romantic piece by an underperformed composer, at least underperformed in opera anyway.

Did it seem like a quick turnaround to you?

No, because throughout the entire bankruptcy process we were working and planning. We were quite diligent in getting everything prepared and in order. I had repertory plans. I had the venue lined up, I had lots of things in place throughout the time of the bankruptcy period of two years. This just didn't happen in the last 60 days. We pulled the trigger on everything recently but we knew what we were going to do. We were prepared for it.

You come to the NYCO from an operatic background.

I founded and ran Dicapo Opera, which was a boutique, niche but very popular, company since 1981.

And your new job will be opera on a much larger scale.

It's a much larger scale in one sense and it's the same in the other. Producing an opera from A to Z takes what it takes. You have to find the piece, you have to license it. You have to cast it, you have to build the set, you have to sell the tickets, you have to market it. All of these things are the same throughout the industry. The difference is there are more zeros and commas involved in what you're doing.

But the steps that are needed to produce professional opera, in a union condition, are something I'm very familiar with and have been doing for years. While the stakes are larger, the audiences are larger and the venue is larger, the process is still very much the same.

One thing that struck me immediately was the cost of such a robust season. I couldn't help but think, "Where's all the money coming from?"

It doesn't cost as much as you might think, but it certainly isn't cheap. One of our mainstage productions costs around $1 million. The money comes from various sources. We have a very dedicated board that has made significant contributions. We have been the happy recipient of a very large bequest. We have the money in place for the season that we've announced, obviously. And we are in the process of reinvigorating a fundraising program that was extremely strong in the company's history.

It's not going to happen overnight. If we can get back to, in a short period of time, even 30 percent of what the former company was easily raising, we'll be OK. In the final years, the City Opera was raising close to $15 million even when they left Lincoln Center.

But back in late summer, early fall of 2013, it was hard for NYCO to raise any money at all. They tried a $1 million Kickstarter campaign and they couldn't even raise that.

They couldn't raise $1 million because they were in distress. The distress was well known and their approach, while valiant, was not well received because it was almost a threat to the funding community: Either help us or we're going to go away. It was actually very successful in that thousands of people donated but they didn't make their goal.

What's the ballpark figure for the budget for this upcoming season?

It's around $7 million.

Let's talk about the repertoire. There seems to be a number of lesser-known offerings, including Ottorino Respighi's La campana sommersa and Rachmaninoff's first opera, the one-act Aleko. And then there's Bernstein's beloved Candide, the staple Pagliacci and Angels in America by Péter Eötvös. Why these particular operas?

I tried to plan a season that would be reminiscent of the glory years, if you will, of City Opera. Which were years that combined standard repertory with American works with new works and rarities, but by familiar composers.

Aleko and Pagliacci — you know they were written in the same year — I believe complement each other. It'll have the fascination of seeing Rachmaninoff's first opera combined with the comfort of an opera like Pagliacci, which is appealing to the public.

Then we have a contemporary chamber opera, Fallujah, which comes from Long Beach Opera. It's something I want to do around Veterans Day; it's the first opera written about the Iraq War. Then we go to Candide, which is iconic. The opera house version was created for City Opera by Bernstein and Hal Prince. And we luckily have Hal Prince to direct it for us.

That's a major coup.

It is a major coup. He loves the City Opera. City Opera gave him the first chance to direct an opera. He gave them Candide and it was a valuable asset to them for years and years, and he wants to do something to give back and to help us succeed.

And then the Respighi piece fits into the neglected but important works that City Opera was known for. This is a piece that needs to be heard. It hasn't been in New York since 1928, when the Met did it. It's something that is very City Opera and it's beautiful yet completely unknown to today's audiences, and I have high hopes for it. Then we have a Spanish Baroque piece, Los Elementos, which continues our new mission to perform an opera in Spanish every year. It also speaks to the long history City Opera has had with Baroque music. And then Angels in America — an important piece never been done in New York, remarkably. And it ticks all the boxes for City Opera as I see it.

One thing NYCO is known for is the cultivation of young singers. I wonder if you could talk a little about that as there are no singers listed in the upcoming season announcement.

We like to announce the singers with the production and make that a separate announcement because it focuses on them more, rather than them just getting lost in the flurry of everything we're saying right now. On top of it, I find that the longer we wait to cast, the higher level of artists we're able to get. And I know that sounds contrary to what you might think. But the larger companies that pay the larger fees, they cast far in advance but they can tie people up.

We are not going to be able to tie somebody up with our fee structure long in advance. But now when I'm looking to cast for eight, 12, 16 months ahead, I have a greater likelihood of being able to get a higher caliber artist who's available and will stick to the contract.

The original NYCO was heralded as "Opera for the People," but recently a lot of small, flexible opera companies have sprouted in New York. I'm thinking Loft Opera, On Site Opera, the Prototype Festival and the many smaller ones associated with the New York Opera Alliance. How does the new NYCO fit into this more crowded field?

I see it as an uncrowded field. I think we're in a class by ourselves. I think it's crowded on that level, yes. And then there's the Met. But the full scale, completely realized productions, in a proscenium theater with a union orchestra and chorus, which those companies don't have, with scenery and costumes and all the elements of grand opera — perhaps not with superstars, but with emerging stars but on a grander scale, but not on the scale of the Met or La Scala — is where we fit in. And that's where City Opera was always able to fit in.

Sounds like you must have had to redo your contracts with the union musicians.

We've successfully renegotiated all our contracts at a substantial discount from what they were before. We have an excellent relationship with all the unions, and we've had their cooperation. And it's because of their cooperation that we've been able to restart this company. And I'm grateful to them and it's very much a partnership.

Everyone talks of attracting younger audiences to opera. I suppose you are you thinking about that, too?

It's perhaps the most important thing we have to do. We have our educational programs, which are wonderful for younger people who are going to grow up to enjoy opera, and that's important. But it's trying to attract the 25- to 40-year-olds who are not opera lovers and get them engaged and at the same time serve the traditional audience.

One of the things we try to do is make the opera going experience different. Our venue at the Rose Theater in Columbus Circle really helps us do that. There's no other theater in the world where you can go and have the dining options, the cocktail options, the shopping options, a five-star hotel in the building. And so we can make a different experience rather than the opera as just a destination. And frankly, on my board I have seven members under 50 years old. And under 50 is young in opera terms.

Let's talk future. Where do you see the company five years from now?

I know we can do what we're doing now. I know I can raise the money to support this programming. And I believe our audience will support this size of programming. Would I like to add performances and productions? Yes. Will I? I only will if I know that the money is in place to do it and the demand from the audience is there.

The opera world, and especially the New York entertainment world, is so different now. And we have to adjust to that world and find a place where the audience is there for us. Is that 75 performances a year? Is it 80, or 60? We're going to find out and the public is going to tell us. The public and the ability to fundraise for it are what's going to dictate where we are in five years. It's not going to ever be, in my opinion, 120 performances a year. I don't think the market will take it.

One final question. You know, your name looks Italian ...

It is definitely Italian.

I'm wondering if you grew up with opera in the house as a kid.

Actually, no. I grew up in an Italian-speaking household, constantly blaring Italian music, but never opera. My grandfather always maintained that the greatest Italian singer was Enrico Caruso.

He was right!

But we were not listening to Caruso because they were the old scratchy 78s that we had in cartons in the garage. But I went to the library and got this book by Francis Robinson called Caruso: His Life in Pictures. I devoured this book and I asked to go to the opera. And my mother took me, and I went to see L'elisir d'amore at the Met, in that old production that was by Nathaniel Merrill where Dulcamara came in in a hot air balloon, and I was captivated.

And now, all these years later, you're heading up the New York City Opera. So it's a happy ending.

It's a very happy ending. I'm the luckiest guy in the world because I get up in the morning and I do exactly what I want to do.

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'Sounds And Sweet Airs' Remembers The Forgotten Women Of Classical Music

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Heard on Weekend Edition Sunday Classical music fans are familiar with Robert Schumann. But they might not know that his his wife, Clara, was an accomplished composer, too.

Classical music fans are familiar with Robert Schumann. But they might not know that his his wife, Clara, was an accomplished composer, too.

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Sounds and Sweet Airs
Sounds and Sweet Airs

The Forgotten Women of Classical Music

by Anna Beer

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Classical music fans know the names Mendelssohn and Schumann. Chances are, Felix and Robert leap to mind — but Felix's sister Fanny was also a composer, and so was Robert Schumann's wife Clara. Those are just two composers featured in Anna Beer's new book, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music.

Beer spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about the strategies women composers have used over the centuries to succeed in such a male-dominated field. You can hear their conversation at the audio link, or read on for an edited version.

Rachel Martin: Your book profiles a handful of women composers dating back to the 17th century. What was it about the sexism of the time that made it so hard for them to be recognized for the music they were composing and creating?

Anna Beer: Well, sexism, like everything, changes over time. So I think we've got two broad kinds of sexism working: one in the earlier period, and one which brings us right up to today. In the earlier period, there were beliefs about the appropriate spheres and appropriate behavior for women. But if you were an exceptionally talented composer, and you did produce astonishing, wonderful music, people would make a kind of exception for you. They'd say, "Your music is equal to men."

The only thing you had to be very careful of, as a woman, was to behave. You'd have to watch out for being described as courtesan, and you had to marry who you were told to marry, and be innocent and chaste and all the rest of it. But under certain circumstances, in the right place and the right time — particularly if there's a really powerful female monarch in place who wants somebody to justify their rule and their power, [and] might want a kind of poster girl for female talent — you could succeed.

Let's talk about one female composer that you've written about in this book: a Venetian woman from the Baroque era, a composer by the name of Barbara Strozzi. Who was she?

Barbara Strozzi is a woman of mystery, in many ways, and certainly her parentage is. But she was taken up by the man whose name she took, who was a leading figure in the Venetian, libertine, creative musical world. And she was brought up as a singer and as a performer, amongst men, performing erotic songs for men --

Erotic songs for men?

Erotic songs for men, yes, as a teenage girl. That's how she cut her teeth as a composer. And her father figure used her in various, interesting ways. I mean yes, he created a platform for her, but he also prostituted her to his most important musical patron. So, it was very much a Venetian world where the courtesan — who, as we know, in Venice, was professional in so many ways, but one of her skills was to provide music as well as sex.

What's astonishing about her life is that she published her work under her own name. She has more music in print than any other composer, male or female, in that Baroque era in the 17th century. And I like to think that it was kind of her way to bypass the prince's bedroom, or the nobleman's bedroom or even just the impresario's bedroom — to leave a legacy. Because this is always the challenge for women: They might be stupendously successful in their time, but how do generations after hear their music?

Let's talk about Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel — Felix's older sister.

She grew up very, very close with Felix Mendelssohn, her little brother. And they were both seen as geniuses in many ways. They both had the same education, until a crushing moment; I can only imagine that it haunted her throughout the rest of her life. When she was 14, her father came back from a business trip with gifts for the two children: Fanny was 14 and Felix was 10. Felix got a notebook and pen to write his first opera — as you do when you're 10, if you're Felix Mendelssohn! Fanny, who was already writing the most complex, advanced compositions you could possibly imagine, was given a set of jewels — and told that in her life, music could be an ornament, like the jewels, but it would be an ornament to her life in the home as a wife and mother.

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Perhaps the most painful part of Fanny Hensel's life is that she did marry a wonderful man who supported her enormously — an artist, Wilhelm Hensel. She tried so hard to be that perfect wife and mother. She embraced it; her diaries are full of joyous little domestic details. But she kept composing.

Did you discover anything more about their adult relationship as siblings, Felix and Fanny? Did he recognize her talent?

Yes. He absolutely recognized her talent. They wrote constantly about musical matters. He would run his latest piece by her; she would do the same thing. But he could not bear the thought of her going out into the public world. He opposed every step of the way — as did her father — her publishing her music. She obeyed him until finally, at around 40, I think, there was this moment, this awakening. There's this very touching letter where she remembers the girl she was at 14. She says, "I'm as anxious writing to you today, Felix, as I was when I was 14, standing up to father. But I really, really want to publish my music." And the heartbreaking thing about this is that she died very soon after this very late foray into any kind of public recognition at all.

One last composer: Lili Boulanger, a French woman who also came from a musical family.

Yes, and even more of a musical world. I mean, Gabriel Fauré was a neighbor, a professor of composition, lived in the flat above. It was the 9th arrondissement in Paris, the perfect place for a composer to flourish. And, you know, we are in a world in which as a woman, it was beginning to be possible to be a composer. But Lili is so interesting because her big sister, who is often much more well-known, Nadia Boulanger, succeeded at every possible level, but didn't win the top prize. You couldn't break through that glass ceiling. And Lili watched. And you could almost see the cogs working. She thought, "Nadia has tried to do this like a man." Lili presented herself as a femme fragile, a fragile woman, a girl. She was not a threat to the establishment. She always dressed in virginal white. She won the award that eluded her sister.

When she was interviewed about her prizewinning piece — she was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, the highest musical honor — she was interviewed with her mother, even though she was a grown woman. And she was asked, "How did you come up with the piece?" And she says, "I dreamed it. Didn't I, mother?" Her mother says, "What?" And she says, "Well, that I was a little child and I was teaching my little doll to play the piano." "You see," said her mother, smiling, "she's still only a child."

She knew how to play the game.

She knew how to play the game. The tragedy is that she was seriously ill for much of her short life, and so this femme fragile [image] was very close to home. A question that has haunted me writing about these women is that clearly, each and every one of them had to come up with a strategy to beat the sexism of their time. And to pretend to be a child-woman, when actually you're an assiduous professional, is one strategy. But how well does it serve the women coming after you?

What is the situation for women composers today?

I think it's still very difficult. It breaks my heart every time I read Clara Schumann writing in the 19th century, saying, "I can't be a composer; there haven't been any female composers. Why do I even try?" And you think, "Of course there are! There's 300, 400, 500 years of women writing before you, Clara. You can do it." And if there's one thing I learned from all eight women I wrote about: boy, the professionalism, the determination, the sheer skill. Let's pay homage to that, in the past, and indeed in the present.

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