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An Inviting Apocalypse: John Luther Adams On 'Become Ocean'

NPR Staff

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7 min 24 sec   John Luther Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning piece is called Become Ocean; the recording of the work comes out Sept. 30.

John Luther Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning piece is called Become Ocean; the recording of the work comes out Sept. 30.

Donald Lee/Courtesy of the artist

This past April, composer John Luther Adams became the most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his piece Become Ocean — a work commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, the recording of which comes out this Tuesday.

Become Ocean

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Adams says that he got the call with the good news in the middle of a afternoon power nap, during an exhausting teaching residency at Michigan Tech University.

"I heard the word and asked the person on the other end, 'You know, could I call you back?' " Adams remembers. "Talk about your wake-up call."

Become Ocean is, in one sense, a wake-up call as well. The Pulitzer committee called the composition "a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels."

Adams spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about letting environmentalism infuse his music, and his desire to take his work outside the concert hall. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read the conversation below.

Arun Rath: So, let's talk about the commission for Become Ocean. First, can you explain the concept?

John Luther Adams: That's a fair question; I'm not sure I can give you a fair answer. It's a piece that feels like the culmination of many different things that I've been working on for 40 years or more now, trying to create a sense of endless space and suspended time. I'm obsessed with place as music and music as place. And what I want to experience as a listener, and what I hope for you as a listener, is to discover a strange and beautiful and maybe somewhat frightening new place, and invite you into that place to find your way and have your own experience.

I don't want to be too literal-minded about music, especially that doesn't have words, but I know that you are somebody that's very concerned with the natural environment and with global warming. With a title like Become Ocean, it's sort of hard for me not to read into that — that you're thinking about a time when we might kind of become one with the ocean.

Yes indeed. I think I kind of want to have it both ways, if I may, in my music. I believe deeply in the inherent power and mystery, the imperative, for music in our lives. And it's my hope that you can listen to this music without knowing anything about what the composer had in mind, including maybe even the title, and find yourself, or lose yourself, immersed in this music and have a real experience, something that touches you and moves you.

At the same time — and this is me talking out of the other side of my mouth — most of us these days, think a lot about the future of the present state of the Earth, the future of the human species and specifically about climate change. As I composed Become Ocean, I had in my mind and my heart this image of the melting of polar ice and the rising of the seas. All life on this Earth emerged from the ocean. If we don't wake up and pay attention here pretty soon, we human animals may find ourselves once again becoming ocean sooner than we imagine.

Listening to it, I was almost expecting something different. This is music that sort of overwhelms, and you can be absorbed in it, but I don't feel like I'm drowning, you know. I don't feel a sense of alarm — you know, a siren or anything like that.

You know, there's this 19th-century idea of the sublime: the idea is that there is an inextricable wholeness to our experience of the world, that contains at once both beauty and terror. And I think I want to be right on that razor's edge.

The sense of "awesome," in its original sense of the word.

Yes. And maybe that's the Alaskan in me: 40 years living in the presence of raging wildfires and river ice breaking free in the springtime. I've been in touch for most of my life — pretty directly in touch — with these elemental forces that are so much bigger and more powerful, not only than I am, but than I can even imagine. And that can be both terrifying and profoundly reassuring. For me, that's pretty close to religious experience.

I want to talk about your latest work that's currently being performed. It's a piece called Sila: The Breath Of The World, and it's intended to be performed outside, not in a concert hall. Can you explain that idea?

It's actually the second outdoor piece that I've composed in recent years. A few years ago, it finally occurred to me that — after almost 40 years of composing music inspired by the big world but intended to be heard inside, in the small world — maybe it was finally time to step outside and make music that was intended from the outset to be performed, heard, experienced, out-of-doors.

You know, there are some performers who will walk off the stage if people cough too much. It sounds like this is kind of the opposite of that sort of reverence for the performing space.

It is, and yet I don't think it undermines the ceremony, the magic, the mystery or the reverence. I've been fortunate enough to experience Alaskan native drumming and dancing and all-night ceremonies over the years — and in native culture, there's not this distinction that we make in Western culture between the sacred and the profane.

I remember this one occasion being at the Messenger Feast, a mid-winter ceremony in Barrow, Alaska. This is a very serious and ancient event happening in the school gym, and there are masked dancers and a large line of drummers and men and women chanting, and this goes on all night. And the lead drummer might be, in the heat of the moment, leading the group, and then his grandchild will come up to him and have a running nose — and he'll put his drum down, wipe the kid's nose, and then pick up his drum and go right back into "game face." For us, we make this distinction between sacred space and quotidian space, but I don't think it needs to be that way.

I'm curious, because being a modern composer in 2014 is not the easiest of professions: Is getting the Pulitzer like an independent filmmaker getting an Oscar? Does that open up more possibilities for you?

People have been asking me, "Has it changed my life?" The answer is, I'm not sure. I don't think so. But the truth is, Arun, there's really not much in my life that I would want to change. I mean, it's just such a gift to do what I do as a life's work and to follow the music, as I like to say, wherever it may lead me. So I'm not really looking for the Pulitzer Prize to change my life — but if the Pulitzer Prize makes it a little bit easier for me to continue my work, then that will be a wonderful thing.

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Remembering Christopher Hogwood, An Evangelist For Early Music

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2 min 51 sec   The late conductor, keyboard player and scholar Christopher Hogwood.

The late conductor, keyboard player and scholar Christopher Hogwood.

Marco Borggreve/Courtesy of the artist

English conductor, keyboard player and musicologist Christopher Hogwood died Wednesday at age 73, following an unspecified illness that lasted several months. His death was confirmed by Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, where he was conductor laureate. Hogwood, who was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1989, was a leading light in making pre-baroque and baroque music concert hall staples — and he helped transform the way musicians of all stripes approached such scores.

Born Sept. 10, 1941, in Nottingham, England, Hogwood began his Cambridge University studies in 1960. Soon after graduating in 1964, he established himself as a real presence on the London music scene, as a keyboardist in the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra and as a founder of The Early Music Consort of London. In 1968, he began to study with the late Dutch keyboardist and musicologist Gustav Leonhardt, a pivotal figure in the resurgence of what was coming to be called "early music."

Hogwood's first experience in co-founding a group dedicated to pre-baroque, baroque and classical-era music was an indicator of his burgeoning role as an evangelist for this music, particularly in England and the U.S. The idea, which became known as historically informed performance, was to shed the conventions of the 19th-century concert hall and play Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and others in a way that would have made sense to the musicians and audiences of their own times. This meant using the kinds of instruments used centuries ago, in smaller ensembles and with different tuning, and doing original research to hew as closely as possible to the spirit and intention of the composers' original works.


The results were often bracing, even shocking. As critic John Rockwell wrote in a 1980 review of a recording of Handel's Messiah led by Hogwood, the conductor and his colleagues infused new vitality into an evergreen: "The revelatory results are like no Messiah ever heard before in this century. The biting edge of the gut strings, the airy buoyancy of the total instrumental ensemble, the utter transparency of the choral singing, the sharply etched musical profile of every familiar member freed from any suggestion of a Romantic silky-rich vibrato — this is a Messiah that will no doubt elate baroque purists and unsettle traditionalists. What cannot be disputed is the scholarly thoroughness of the conception and the sheer joyous brilliance of the execution, a performance that will surely stimulate anyone who hears it to re-evaluate a masterpiece."

Not only did the historically informed performance movement give birth to dozens of fine ensembles across Europe and North America, but it also transformed how even many mainstream musicians approached such scores. Generations of musicians have become performer-scholars in the model of Hogwood and his elders, lightening up their touch, trimming their forces and speeding up or slowing down tempos to match the composers' own markings.

In 1973, Hogwood founded the Academy of Ancient Music, which he also conducted, and with whom he made more than 200 recordings, including the first complete cycle of Mozart's symphonies on period instruments. In 1986, Hogwood joined Boston's venerable Handel and Haydn Society — one of America's oldest continuously performing arts organizations — remaking it into a historically informed performance ensemble. Hogwood led Handel and Haydn until 2001, at which point he was named conductor laureate. He also served as music director and later principal guest conductor of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, among his many other posts in the U.S., Europe and Australia.

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1 month ago | |
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Everything You Wanted To Know About Classical Music (But Weren't Afraid To Ask)

Khatia Buniatishvili's new album, Motherland, is among those recommended during the Friday afternoon Twitter sessions.

Khatia Buniatishvili's new album, Motherland, is among those recommended during the Friday afternoon Twitter sessions.

Sony Classical

A few weeks ago, in an act of brazen thievery, your devoted NPR Classical hosts appropriated an idea from our colleague Bob Mondello, NPR's film critic. Each Friday he tweets movie suggestions for the weekend. Realizing we could easily capitalize on his brilliance (less work for us!), we decided to run with Bob's concept and recommend classical albums each Friday afternoon at 2 Eastern on Twitter.

We were pleasantly surprised to find a swell of interest both from newbies, asking about classical music to start with, and seasoned observers, commenting on everything from neglected Russian symphonies to the similarities (or not) between string quartets by Janácek and Bartok.

We tend to lean toward new and exciting releases, and in sessions that last just 30 minutes, the recommendations are far from comprehensive. But in the spirit of Friday afternoons, anything goes. It's all quite fun and we encourage you to join us. Meanwhile, here are some of the questions and recommendations from the past couple of weeks.

(Note: /AT is Anastasia Tsioulcas, /TH is Tom Huizenga)

Recommended by @NotaRover:

  • Well, if you want something new, try Music for Heart and Breath by Richard Reed Parry (from Arcade Fire). /TH
  • I'd strongly suggest making time for this live video of Arvo Part's music: /AT
  • There's a great new Talich Qt. reissue of Janacek SQs with Schulhoff SQ No. 1! /TH
  • I'm also partial to the old Smetana Qt. recording of the Janaceks /TH
  • For sheer theatricality in the Janacek, try the Hagen Qt. on DG from 20 years ago. Stunning and in your face. /TH
  • You know which other qt's Bartok I adore? The Takacs. So vivid & visceral. /AT

Recommended by @CharityTD (Bartok):

  • I grew up w/ Takacs in Colorado. Exquisite, passionate and clean musicianship all at once.

Recommended by @Davidweininger (Janacek):

  • That Hagen disc is one of the greatest chamber music recordings in history, tho I also like Talich for a diff view.
  • There's a recent Nyman piano disc by Lisitsa and a new Turnage 'Undance' that sounds great on NMC label./TH
  • I really like Turnage's Viola Concerto — the London Phil released a recording /AT
  • The HUGE buzz electronically speaking is the soon to be released new album by Aphex Twin. I've heard a sneak peek. AWESOME. /TH
  • Give the "NPR Classical 50" a try — each has a recommendation for a work along w/ a specific recording. /AT

Recommended by @TheOneImage:

  • How about Elgar? Enigma Variations? An oldie-but-goodie recording led by Simon Rattle: /AT
  • And if you'd like to try out a little Thomas Tallis himself, you've gotta go with the Tallis Scholars singing Tallis' "Spem in Alium." Life-changing, in my opinion. /AT
  • Oooh, Nancarrow! We were just talking about the player piano music a couple of days ago. Do you know the Wergo series of Nancarrow? /AT



  • Her concerts have been slammed, but pianist Khatia Buniatishvili's new CD "Motherland" is a pleasing set of hits peppered with rarities. /TH
  • How about Carter Pann. Remember "Slalom?" His new solo piano album, played by Joel Hastings, reminds me of a modern day Reynaldo Hahn. /TH
  • Like Piano Music? Ethiopian pianist Girma Yifrashewa has a delightful new album, Love & Peace. Think Chopin mixed with African-styled tunes. /TH
  • Also, albums I haven't heard yet but really looking forward to opening up: Behzod Abduraimov's Tchaik 1/Prok 3 piano ctos /AT


  • There's a new electrifying 'Elektra.' Evelyn Herlitzius is a powerhouse. HUGE orchestra strong under Thielemann in Dresden. /TH
  • Wild about Joyce DiDonato's Stella di Napoli. Melting bel canto singing, incl. a breathtaking early Bellini aria. /TH
  • Liking the Perello (husband-wife team of Ailyn Perez and Stephen Costello) album of duets. /TH
  • In the reissue dept. you can't get much lovelier than Lieder by Schubert, Brahms and Strauss sung by Lisa Della Casa, rec. in 1956./TH


  • Smitten with Robert Kyr's choral pieces sung by Conspirare. And yes, we've done some reporting on it. /TH
  • Choral connoisseur? The Sixteen continues its survey of Palestrina in with a mass, Song of Songs and a gorgeous Veni Creator Spiritus. /TH
  • Want great singing? The beauty of singing in the Latvian Radio Choir continues to stun me. New album, Sacred Love. /TH


  • I'm a fan of Anima Eterna the historically informed orch. from Bruges. The new Ravel album sports transparent coloring in the winds. /TH
  • Always a soft spot for Lou Harrison. A new disc of 'La Koro Sutro' and Suite for Violin and Gamelan with Gil Rose's BMOP is welcomed. /TH
  • It rocks softly: Polish musician Jacaszek creatively blends electronics and acoustic instruments. The new album is Catalogue des Arbres./TH
  • Also loving: James Blackshaw's new project, music for a silent film, Le Faux Magistrat, recorded live at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. /TH
  • And for new music try 'Excelsior,' by the young, increasingly awesome Caleb Burhans @Pluckbro performed by the Fifth House Ensemble. /TH
  • The Danish String Quartet is always up to something interesting. This time 400-year-old folk music, on the new album "Wood Works." /TH
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If It's Not Scottish ... Classical Contributions Of The Scots

The Scottish bagpipes make a surprise appearance in a beloved piece by Peter Maxwell Davies.

The Scottish bagpipes make a surprise appearance in a beloved piece by Peter Maxwell Davies.


The votes are in. The people of Scotland have chosen to remain in the United Kingdom. To mark the historic occasion, a wee reminder of what the Scots have contributed to classical music is in order.

When British classical music gets mentioned, the big guns always come to mind — composers like Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Purcell. But the Scots aren't just chopped haggis. They've got Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and Thea Musgrave to brag about, as well as such prominent performers as percussionist Evelyn Glennie and conductor Donald Runnicles. There's the Scottish landscape itself, imposing enough to have inspired non-Scots composers from Haydn and Beethoven to Mendelssohn, Bruch, Dvorak, Leroy Anderson and Malcolm Arnold.

So gather up a dram of single malt and a Dundee cake and settle in for a sampling of a few of Scotland's finest.

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1 month ago | |
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Watch A Sweet Little Butterfly Nearly Crush A Woman's Hopes And Dreams

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2 min 58 sec   Odense Symphony/YouTube

Flutist Yukie Ota spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about her encounter with a too-friendly insect this week; hear their conversation at the audio link and read on to learn more.

International music competitions are full of nail-biting moments for young musicians seeking top prizes. But Japanese-born, Chicago-based flutist Yukie Ota encountered a peculiar distraction Monday in the first round of the hugely competitive Carl Nielsen International Flute Competition in Odense, Denmark, which draws flutists aged 13 to 29.

As Ota played Pierrre Sancan's Sonatine for the judges, a butterfly first landed in her hair and then settled on her left eyebrow as she continued to perform. Only a brief glance upward belied her complete concentration as the insect opened and closed its wings.

I asked Dr. Bob Robbins, curator of lepidoptera at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, what the butterfly was doing there. Was it attracted by the lights? Something on her skin? Just the fluttery sound of her flute?

After taking a look at the video, Robbins told me that this was an Aglais io, or a Peacock butterfly, which is a very common species in Europe. He noted that it is "very weird" for a butterfly to come indoors like this, and that when butterflies land on people, it's usually because they are looking for salty water to drink.

"If you look closely at the video," he says, "you can see the butterfly's proboscis — its 'tongue' — out as it crawls across her forehead. It's looking for her perspiration. And she's under lights at a highfalutin competition. I'd be sweating a bit under that pressure."

Regardless of who wins this competition on Sept. 20, we say: Give Ota a prize for grace under pressure. Her floating, flittering little friend didn't faze her at all.

(A hat tip to our friend Fred Child, host of Performance Today, who saw this video.)

Update: Ota passed this and has since advanced to the final round to be held on Saturday, Sept. 20. You can stream the flutists' performances live on the Nielsen Competition website.

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1 month ago | |
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Listen To The Atlanta Symphony While It's Locked Out — Again

Hear The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Robert Spano conducts members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, who are now locked out for the second time in two years after failed contract negotiations.

Robert Spano conducts members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, who are now locked out for the second time in two years after failed contract negotiations.

J.D. Scott/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Alas, it is déjà vu all over again for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. At midnight Saturday, the ASO musicians and management failed to meet the deadline to agree on a new contract after eight months of negotiations. That means the players, while still employees of the orchestra, are effectively locked out of the Woodruff Arts Center (the orchestra's home) and will not receive paychecks until a new agreement can be ratified. ASO musicians demonstrated outside the hall Tuesday.

A similar labor dispute silenced the orchestra exactly two years ago. The gulf between musicians and management appears to be wide this time. The ASO claims its financial situation is unsustainable while the musicians fear the proposed cuts will inflict irreversible damage to the sound and reputation of the orchestra. Let's hope the two sides can reconcile soon. Meanwhile, here's audible proof — posted in Sept. 2012, the last time this happened — that the Atlanta Symphony is well worth caring about, no matter where you live.

With just a month to go before opening its 68th season, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has gone silent. A bitter labor dispute between the ASO musicians and orchestra management has resulted in a lockout — meaning the players have literally been prevented from entering the Woodruff Arts Center and stripped of their salaries and health benefits.

The two sides appear to be stuck over the amount of cuts ASO players are willing to endure versus the amount management says its needs to help battle a bulging $20 million debt. The lockout seems a pity, considering that the two sides are so close. They are arguing, at this point, over a figure of $1.2 million over a proposed two-year contract.

Let's forego details on what is, for the moment, essentially a war of words and budget numbers. Instead, let's focus on what makes the ASO one of this country's important orchestras, hoping that the dispute will resolve quickly (and fairly).

In the meantime, below are five terrific Atlanta Symphony Orchestra recordings. They make the point that the ensemble, under conductors like Robert Shaw (who created the excellent Atlanta Symphony Chorus), Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles, is a versatile, gutsy group with a longstanding commitment to contemporary music — not to mention the vast contributions it has made to its home city and the American South.

The ASO has had the great fortune to be recorded in resplendent sound by the Telarc label in more than 100 albums over a 32-year span. Over that time the group has racked up a dazzling 27 Grammy Awards (yet not, it should be noted, without a modicum of controversy). These days the orchestra records for its own ASO Media.

Got your own favorite Atlanta Symphony recordings? Have you been to hear the orchestra lately? Please tell us in the comments section.

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1 month ago | |
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Philip Glass And Steve Reich At BAM: Together Again Yet Still Apart

Four Organs by Steve Reich was performed Tuesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 50th anniversary of the Nonesuch label (from left: Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, David Cossin, Timo Andres and Steve Reich).

Four Organs by Steve Reich was performed Tuesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 50th anniversary of the Nonesuch label (from left: Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, David Cossin, Timo Andres and Steve Reich).

Stephanie Berger

Throughout this month, the Brooklyn Academy of Music's signature Next Wave Festival is celebrating a record label with which it shares history and purpose: Nonesuch, marking its 50th anniversary this year. This festival within a festival kicked off with two of America's most influential composers, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, whose careers are tightly entwined with both the label and the venue. A three-night series began last night, with additional programs tonight and tomorrow.

In the lead up to yesterday evening, much fanfare had been made about Reich and Glass sharing a stage for the first time in more than 30 years. (The two men are said to have had a disagreement that sundered their friendship decades ago, though neither is willing to speak about the matter publicly.) Last night, they played Reich's Four Organs, which Glass had played with Reich in the 1970s and which they will repeat this evening; also this evening, Reich will return the compliment by playing in Glass' 1969 piece Music in Similar Motion, which Reich played more than 40 years ago.

In a conversation a couple of weeks ago, Reich told me that the emotional resonance of this performance of Four Organs was much broader than his association with Glass. For the BAM performance of Four Organs, the two former colleagues — now both in their late 70s — were joined by composer-performers in their 30s who have become celebrated in their own right: Timo Andres and Nico Muhly, as well as percussionist David Cossin. Muhly is a Glass protege; Cossin was a student of the late percussionist James Preiss, who was one of the first members of Reich's group in 1971, and who died in November. As Reich told me, "There were a lot of humane things going into this performance."

The performance was — at least on the first evening — not entirely smooth, despite the emotional gratification. (It will be repeated on this evening's program.) Described by Reich as "the longest V-I cadence in the history of Western music," Four Organs unspools the six notes of two chords (B - D - F# and E-G#-B) in an audacious deconstruction that, while sounding very much of its time, also manages to evoke 13th-century vocal music by composers like Perotin.

The compositional complexity of Four Organs also demands monastically intense and often visible counting by its performers to keep it on its rhythmic and harmonic rails. Last night, that effort was plain — not only could the audience see the organists' lips move as they counted, but we could frequently hear them counting off the beats as Muhly kept the group moving along with wildly large head swings to mark off passages for his fellow artists. Despite the anticipation that had surrounded their joint appearance, Reich and Glass greeted the audience's applause with courtly bows, but no physical gestures of amity to telegraph their patched-up relationship — professional, yes, but not particularly warm. The performance itself spoke enough, it seems.

The rest of the evening was split between Glass' and Reich's work, a format that gives similar shape to the other two concerts in their BAM miniseries. Glass and his musicians, the Philip Glass Ensemble, took the stage first, beginning with a small instrumental excerpt from the CIVIL warS (formerly and more formally called the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down), a hugely ambitious 12-hour opera created by director Robert Wilson with music by Glass, David Byrne, Gavin Bryars and a host of others for the 1984 Summer Olympics, yet never entirely staged. Despite the enormity of that unrealized project, this excerpt is intimately scaled and dominated by high woodwinds playing signature Glassian ostinatos in dreamlike fashion. Ripped from its context, the "Cologne" excerpt felt like a fading photo pulled out from a long-stored stash.

Even though it was also presented in excerpts, the focal point of Glass' portion — Parts 1 and 2 from his Music in 12 Parts, written between 1971 and 1974 — was wholly satisfying on every level. Expertly performed at this concert, Music in 12 Parts functions as something of a guide to some of Glass' most interesting compositional ideas in the 1970s. Part 2 includes voice, which becomes a deeply humanizing element for Glass' mechanisms, but also points to one of his most fruitful musical cross-fertilizations.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Glass became deeply interested in the music of northern India, which he had encountered rather randomly via Ravi Shankar in an instance of what Glass has called "blind luck." (The two went on to collaborate, which has been documented on recordings made in the 1980s and which have been partly reissued on a project I produced.) A very important idea within north Indian classical music is improvisations on scale notes, which vocalists render in syllabic sargam (an acronym for sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa, syllables that roughly correspond to the Western solfege notes of do re mi and so forth). In Glass' hands, that vocalization in Indian improvisation becomes a repetition taken to its extreme in a Western setting — still buoyant, but utterly transformed.

It would have been perfect to let the excerpted Music in 12 Parts be the punctuation mark ending the concert's Glass-centered half, but instead a small group of keyboardists and percussionists re-emerged to play an excerpt from Glass' 1983 ancient-Egypt opera Akhnaten, in music for the funeral of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Unfortunately, its orchestration — synthesizers and electronic drums — sounded as foreign and dated as Betamax, and the piece was a letdown after 12 Parts.

The concert's second half was devoted entirely to Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, which became the emotional heart of the evening, and which Reich dedicated to Preiss from the stage. Written between 1974 and 1976, this nearly hour-long piece has become an iconic benchmark of 20th century music. In 2014, it is still as beautiful, fresh and compelling as ever, a vital part of the musical canon.

The members of the Reich ensemble who performed at BAM last night included musicians who have played with the him since the 1970s, and their love of the score was palpable. That sense of familial embrace was hugely present in this joyous performance — and that pleasure radiated back to the musicians when the piece concluded. For the first time all night, the audience broke into raucous cheers and an extended standing ovation.

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Enduringly Dramatic Italian Soprano Magda Olivero Dies At 104

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4 min 39 sec   Magda Olivero performing Francis Poulenc's one-woman opera La voix humaine at San Francisco Opera in 1979.

Magda Olivero performing Francis Poulenc's one-woman opera La voix humaine at San Francisco Opera in 1979.

Ron Scherl/Redferns/Getty Images

One of the last great Italian divas, and one of opera's most thrilling voices, has finally gone silent. Soprano Magda Olivero died in Milan, Italy today, according to multiple media organizations including the newspaper La Repubblica. She was 104. Olivero never had a glitzy recording career, but she did have something her contemporaries didn't: longevity. She sang in public for more than seven decades.

I first heard Olivero almost three decades ago on one of her hard-to-get bootlegged live recordings, and I immediately fell for her unique sound.

But don't take my word for it. Renée Fleming, one of today's reigning divas, is so crazy about Olivero that she made a pilgrimage to Milan to see her when the older soprano was a spry 94.

"She is such an inspiration," Fleming says, "beautiful, funny, a great raconteur. She gave me a breathing lesson. She had me feeling how she breathes, how she supports, and let me tell you, her abdominal wall is stronger than mine. Rude awakening."

That hard as a rock diaphragm, Fleming says, allowed Olivero to do things like floating dreamy, gossamer-thin tones up to the rafters.

"She does an unbelievable messa di voce on an aria from [Catalani's] Loreley on a high C that I could never hope to do," Fleming says. "It's just perfection."


Magda Olivero sings a rendition of the aria from Cilèa's Adriana Lecouvreur, recorded in 1959.

Olivero was born in the Northern Italian town of Saluzzo in 1910. She studied in nearby Turin, where she made her operatic debut in 1933. Five years later, she made a big impression singing the slave girl, Liu, in the first complete recording of Puccini's Turandot.

Olivero's flickering vibrato may not suit everyone's taste these days, but Fleming is among the legions of cult followers who thrill to Olivero's meticulous command of volume and her penetrating drama.

"I actually love her sound," Fleming says. "I always have the sense that when I hear her recordings that she's singing just for me."

In his book The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record 1900 to 1970, critic John Steane raves about Olivero's 1940 performance of Verdi's La traviata, which has a white-hot intensity to it. He says it points "forward to the new age of the gramophone."


Magda Olivero performs Verdi's La Traviata.

Olivero's style might have pointed forward, but in the next year, 1941, she suddenly quit opera and got married. Ten years later, she re-emerged, Fleming says, as if nothing had happened.

"I said, 'How did you feel coming back after 10 years?' And she said, 'No, I wasn't frightened because I never felt like I was singing. I felt like I was acting,'" Fleming says. "She said, 'My technique was so solid, I never had to think about it.' She said so many fascinating things that I just sat there with my jaw on the floor thinking, 'Wow!'"

Olivero was coaxed back on the stage in 1951 at the request of composer Francesco Cilea, who was dying. He begged to hear her sing the title role in his opera Adrianna Lecouvreur one last time. He died two months before opening night.

After her comeback, Olivero went from strength to strength — a few recordings on big labels and finally, in 1975, a stunning Metropolitan Opera debut. She was then in her mid 60s, an age when many opera singers have already retired. Olivero gave up the opera stage in her early 70s, but kept right on singing.

Olivero once said her main role in life was to sing — wherever and to whomever. She made good on that motto just a few years ago, by singing a scene from Francesca di Rimini at age 99. Her notes may have been little shaky, but her support and breath control were amazingly still intact.

Olivero was truly among the last great Italian divas — an intensely dramatic presence who shines on in her recordings, whether she made them in her 20s or her 90s.

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Five New Classical Videos You Need To See To Believe

Teen cellists Jeremy Tai and Minku Lee playing at Chihuly Garden and Glass.

Teen cellists Jeremy Tai and Minku Lee playing at Chihuly Garden and Glass.

Courtesy of From the Top

Call this an early autumn harvest: In the midst of the usual September deluge of new albums, we've been watching notable — sometimes terrific, sometimes not so terrific — videos that have come over the digital transom in recent weeks.

Our first pick was filmed as promotion for organist Cameron Carpenter's new album, a project we liked a lot and offered as a First Listen. Yet somehow we totally missed this promo video, which was released several months ago. There's a lot going on here, and it would be highly unfair of me to spoil it for you. But the still shot of Carpenter shirtlessly, menacingly staring down the camera should give you some idea of what follows.

Cameron Carpenter VEVO/YouTube

Meanwhile, an 11-year-old busker named Dylan Hamme has been doing brisk business right around the corner from our New York office by trying to emulate his violin idol, Joshua Bell. He's been effective enough to land a spot on the Today show with Kathie Lee Gifford, Hoda Kotb and a "surprise" guest. Unintentional hilarity — and infuriation — ensues. (KLG and Hoda make kind of awful remarks about classical music, and nobody told Hamme to act shocked when Bell shows up for a bit of a duet, in which they instantaneously and telepathically sort out who will play Violin I and who will play Violin II.)

Hamme isn't the only fiddler who's gotten screen time this week. A lot of people have been charmed by a video of a Wisconsin-based violinist named Eleanor Bartsch playing Bach for a pair of elephants who seem to be moving their trunks and heads in time to the music. However, some knowledgeable viewers are saying that this isn't a sign of enjoyment at all, but instead, sadly, it's simply an exhibition of stereotypic behavior by two caged and very bored animals.

Eleanor Bartsch/YouTube

Speaking of things being not quite what they seem, our colleague Brian Wise at WQXR points out that the new film If I Stay, based on a very popular YA novel by Gayle Forman, features a bit of CGI magic. The main character, Mia (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), is a young cellist with dreams of getting into Juilliard. But rather than have Moretz (who tried to learn the cello in seven months before filming) look inept with the instrument, the director ultimately used some digital fusing to match the actress' head with an actual cellist's body. Judge the results for yourself. (At least the versimilitude won't distract audiences from the storyline.)


And this last one is a very beautiful video featuring a quartet of cellos, all teenage musicians who have appeared on the NPR-distributed program From The Top. They're at Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle playing an arrangement one of them made of "The Path of the Wind" theme from the classic Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away.

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Great Expectations: A New Season Of New Music

Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain receives its world premiere at Santa Fe Opera in the coming season.

Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain receives its world premiere at Santa Fe Opera in the coming season.

Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera

Musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen once quipped: "The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition." But it's tough to see much gloom when faced with the diversity of premieres and provocative programming around the country in the 2014-2015 season.

John Adams reboots the Thousand and One Nights story in a new violin concerto called Scheherazade.2. Two Pulitzer winners — Jennifer Higdon and Kevin Puts — continue the trend of taking books and films to the opera stage with Cold Mountain and The Manchurian Candidate. And conductor Michael Tilson Thomas re-creates the famously long 1808 concert where Beethoven premiered his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and his Choral Fantasy.

We've pored over hundreds of listings in compiling this guide to compelling premieres and creatively programmed concerts. Have we missed something monumental? Let us know in the comments area or on Facebook or Twitter.


Although opera companies big and small have taken their lumps lately, there are fresh ideas and plenty of new works in the wings. Two of the most anticipated world premieres ahead this season are from recent Pulitzer winners Jennifer Higdon and Kevin Puts.

Higdon's Cold Mountain, with a libretto by Gene Sheer, is based on Charles Frazier's best-selling novel and debuts Aug. 1 at the Santa Fe Opera. Nathan Gunn stars as Confederate soldier W. P. Inman, who deserts the army for his beloved Ada, played by Isabel Leonard, and his home on Cold Mountain in North Carolina. Anthony Minghella's 2003 movie adaptation earned a Best Supporting Actress award for Renée Zellweger. Cold Mountain is Higdon's first opera and she says she's both excited and nervous. "I'm anxious to see if it works on the stage and with orchestra," she told NPR Music. "When it comes down to it, the music has to carry the weight of the responsibility." Nothing was easy about composing her first opera, but there was one unexpected consequence. "I didn't realize that I would be carrying these characters in my head and heart for about two and a half years," she says. "But in many ways, living inside the opera, which it felt like I did, was not like anything I've ever experienced before. The entire group stayed with me day and night. I've been pretty absent from the present day world for quite some time. That type of concentrated creativity has been amazing to experience."

Kevin Puts' Manchurian Candidate opens at Minnesota Opera March 7. The political thriller is perhaps best known via the 1962 film of the same name that starred Frank Sinatra as a brainwashed Korean War POW. Puts and his librettist Mark Campbell base their opera on the 1959 Richard Condon novel. Puts won the music Pulitzer for his first opera Silent Night, also a collaboration with Campbell at the forward-thinking Minnesota Opera. With the orchestration of the new work almost complete, Puts told NPR Music the hardest part of writing the opera was to achieve balance. "This is a thriller," he said, "so the challenge has been in maintaining a breathless pace and still finding moments to sing, reflect and to give the audience a breather."

Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its outreach initiative Lyric Unlimited in 2012, bringing mainly contemporary operas to intimate venues throughout the area. Two promising entries in the series this season will resonate with Chicago's Mexican and Polish communities.

El Pasado Nunca Se Termina (The Past is Never Finished), opening March 28, is a mariachi opera set on the eve of the Mexican Revolution. It's another collaboration between composer Pepe Martinez and librettist Leonard Foglia (the director of Higdon's Cold Mountain), the same team responsible for the earlier mariachi-inspired Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, a Houston Grand Opera commission from 2010. The Property, by composer Wlad Marhulets and librettist Stephanie Fleishmann, is based on a graphic novel by Rutu Modan and opens Feb. 25. It tells the story of a woman and her granddaughter retracing their steps back to modern day Warsaw to regain property lost during World War II.

Los Angeles Opera will explore a single character through three operas across several centuries. Figaro Unbound: Culture, Power and Revolution at Play celebrates the wily Figaro as he appears in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (opening March 21), Rossini's The Barber of Seville (opening March 8) and John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (opening Feb. 7). The operas were inspired by the 18th-century playwright Beaumarchais, whose work was considered radical in the years leading up to the French Revolution. The Figaro Unbound series includes additional theater works and activities Feb. 7-April 12.

Houston Grand Opera puts a new spin on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, premiering Dec. 5. Simon Callow, best known as an actor in such movies as Amadeus and A Room With a View, directs an operatic version of the beloved story; he wrote the libretto as well. The music is by Iain Bell.


Anything new from John Adams is worthy of attention. This season the New York Philharmonic, with music director Alan Gilbert, premieres Scheherazade.2 for violin and orchestra March 26. Adams says the piece "imagines a modern woman storyteller/hostage whose strength of character and powers of endurance are tested over and over by male hegemony." Violinist and MacArthur fellow Leila Josefowicz will premiere the piece.

Upstate at the adventuresome Albany Symphony, music director David Allen Miller leads the orchestra in the Dec. 20 world premiere of The Winter's Tale for cello and orchestra by Michael Torke. He's the composer of sparkling orchestra pieces like Bright Blue Music.

Pulitzer winner David Lang's new piece man made debuts Oct. 2 on the first subscription concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic season. (We'll webcast the concert at NPR Music.) On Jan. 16 the LA Phil gives the U.S. premiere of the late Henryk Górecki's Fourth Symphony. The work was left unfinished when the composer died in 2010; his son completed the piece, which debuted in London earlier this year.

James Levine has championed music by the late Elliott Carter. March 8, Levine leads the MET Chamber Ensemble at Carnegie Hall in the world premiere of The American Sublime, a piece written especially for him that uses texts by Wallace Stevens.

The Alabama Symphony has commissioned Caleb Burhans, a young multi-genre musician to keep an ear on, to write his first orchestral piece, which premieres May 8. Sept. 19 the orchestra premieres a work by Serbian composer Ðuro Živkovic, winner of the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

Michael Tilson Thomas, who turns 70 next year (can that be?), leads the San Francisco Symphony in a Beethoven flashback. MTT re-creates the 1808 extravaganza wherein Beethoven premiered not only his Fifth Symphony but also his Sixth, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy. Several movements from his Mass in C major and the concert aria Ah! perfido also received their Viennese premieres at that famed event and will appear on MTT's program, which features pianist Jonathan Biss and soprano Karita Mattila as soloists.

The Grand Rapids Symphony presents the world premiere of Dialogues of Love, a new choral symphony by Avner Dorman, which it commissioned. Music director David Lockington conducts the piece Nov. 21-22 in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Two pieces by the prolific young composer Nico Muhly will receive their world premieres. An orchestral work commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra is slated for a May 13 debut in Philadelphia. His Second Service (Magnificat & Nunc dimittis), a work for chorus and organ, premieres 30 miles southwest at the Christ Church Christiana Hundred in Wilmington, Del. Oct. 19. An orchestrated version follows in Liverpool, England Oct. 25.

Somewhere between an oratorio, an opera and a symphonic work is Peter Sellars' staging of J.S. Bach's sublime St. Matthew Passion for the Berlin Philharmonic with conductor Simon Rattle and a starry cast of soloists. Sellars' riveting vision of the work makes its U.S. premiere at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan Oct. 7-8, as part of the White Light Festival. Sellars sees Bach's Passion in communal terms, as a ritual or prayer, with choristers, soloists and some orchestra players having memorized the music in order to blend in as organic characters in the drama. The Berlin Philharmonic's DVD of this production, from 2012, was on many best of the year lists. The New York performances include nearly all of the same soloists, including Magdalena Kožená, Christian Gerhaher and a heart-wrenching Mark Padmore as the evangelist.


This year's Pulitzer winner for music, John Luther Adams, teams up with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider for a premiere of Veils and Vesper, a six-hour sound installation that incorporates the movement of audience members on March 25-26 at Carolina Performing Arts. This marks the first time the piece has been performed with live musicians.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center new music series at the Kaplan Penthouse (Dec. 11 – May 7) features an impressive lineup of composers, from Toshio Hosokawa and Vivan Fung to Andrew Norman, Jörg Widmann and Derek Bermel. The series includes U.S. and New York premieres.

MORE PREMIERES (And Provocative Performances)


19 – Houston Symphony Orchestra: Karnavalingo by Gabriela Lena Frank (world premiere)

23-30 – New York Philharmonic: Clarinet Concerto by Unsuk Chin with soloist Kari Kriikku (U.S. premiere)


9-14 – New York Philharmonic: Thunderstuck by composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse (world premiere)

10 – Eastman Wind Ensemble: Music for Wind orchestra (No Strings Attached) by André Previn (world premiere)

30–Nov. 1 – New York Philharmonic: Flute Concerto by Christopher Rouse (New York premiere)


13-18 – Boston Symphony Orchestra: Dramatis personae, for trumpet and orchestra by Grawemeyer Award winner Brett Dean with soloist Håkan Hardenberger (American Premiere)

20-22 – Boston Symphony Orchestra: new work for chorus and orchestra by Erik Esenvalds (world premiere)

20-22 – Detroit Symphony Orchestra: DSO Music Director leads the world premiere of his own Endgames, as well as performances of a trombone concerto by his wife, Cindy McTee, with DSO Principal Trombone Kenneth Thompkins as soloist

20-22 –Los Angeles Philharmonic: Symphony No. 4, "Organ" by Stephen Hartke (world premiere)

21-22 – Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: Double Concerto for Violin and Cello by André Previn with soloists Jamie Laredo and Sharon Robinson (world premiere)


11-13 – Seattle Symphony: Cello Concerto by Mason Bates with soloist Joshua Roman (world premiere)

January 2015

9-11 – Los Angeles Philharmonic: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, staged version with video (world premiere)

22-23 – Philadelphia Orchestra: Piano Concerto by Mark-Anthony Turnage with soloist Marc-André Hamelin (North American premiere)


12-14 – Boston Symphony Orchestra: Responses: Of sweet disorder and the carefully careless by Harrison Birtwistle (American premiere)

20 – American Symphony Orchestra: Mona Lisa (opera) by Max von Schillings

21 – Alabama Symphony: Transylvanian Seasons by Cristian Bence-Muk (world premiere)


5, 7 – Boston Symphony Orchestra: King Roger (opera) by Karol Szymanowski, with conductor Charles Dutoit

6 – Alabama Symphony: new orchestral piece by Ellis Ludwig-Leone (of the band San Fermin) (world premiere)

26-31 – Boston Symphony Orchestra: new work for organ and orchestra by Michael Gandolfi, with soloist Olivier Latry (world premiere)

27-28 – Colorado Symphony: The Raven by William Hill (the orchestra's principal timpanist), based on Edgar Allan Poe (world premiere)


19 – Juilliard Orchestra: David Robertson conducts a 90th birthday tribute to Pierre Boulez

23-25 – Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: Creation/Creator for chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra by Christopher Theofanidis (world premiere)


8-9 – New York Philharmonic: Senza Sangue (one-act opera) by Peter Eötvös (U.S. premiere)

14-17 – Los Angeles Philharmonic: new work for baritone and orchestra by Kaija Saariaho with soloist Gerald Finley (world premiere)

18-20 – Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Anthology of Fantastic Zoology by Mason Bates (world premiere)

19-31 – Los Angeles Philharmonic: The Next on Grand: Contemporary Americans festival includes Ritornello by Caroline Shaw (West Coast premiere), a new work for orchestra by Bryce Dessner (world premiere), Concerto for Two Pianos by Philip Glass (world premiere)

20, 22-23 – San Francisco Symphony: new work by Samuel Carl Adams (son of John Adams) (world premiere)

28, 30 – Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Violin Concerto by Anna Clyne (world premiere) with soloist Jennifer Koh


5-14 – Opera Philadelphia: Charlie Parker's Yardbird by Daniel Schnyder, with tenor Lawrence Brownlee (world premiere)

10-13 – New York Philharmonic: Joan of Arc at the Stake by Arthur Honegger, with actors including Marion Cotillard (U.S. premiere of this staging)

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