All Things Considered
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Photo from The Rifleman's Violin, directed by Sam Ball, Copyright Citizen Film 2015.
Seventy years ago, shortly after defeating Nazi Germany, three victorious leaders met in Potsdam, just outside Berlin. President Harry Truman was there with British and Soviet leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Stuart Canin was also there — he was a 19-year-old GI from New York City who played the violin.
Canin was drafted and sent to Europe as an Army rifleman, and he took along his instrument. He went on to become a successful violinist and concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, and he's the subject of a short documentary film called The Rifleman's Violin. He's now 89, and he spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about a monumental political meeting that he remembers from a unique perspective.
Robert Siegel: Before we get to Potsdam, tell us about your decision, when you shipped out to serve in Europe during World War II, to take your violin.
Stuart Canin: Well, I had no idea how long the Army would want my services. So, I had my $2, cigar-box violin, and going up the gangplank, my commanding officer said, "What are you going to do with that?" I said to him, "Well, you never know."
But ultimately, the Army figured out it had a violinist on its hands, and it could make some use out of this gift you had.
The war ended on May 8, and on May 10 I got orders — they said, "Private First Class Stuart Canin is going to be sent back to Paris to join an entertainment soldier show company." Among the people there were Josh Logan, the famous Broadway director, and Mickey Rooney, the wonderful actor at that time. I went around with Sgt. Eugene List, the well-known American pianist who came over then with the future idea of having a GI symphony, which did eventually come about.
Flash forward to July 1945, just about this time of the month. You're being taken to Potsdam.
Our commanding officer in Paris said, "Eugene, you, Stuart and Mickey, get yourselves ready. We're flying to Berlin, because President Truman is coming over." They drove us over to Potsdam, and they billeted us in a tent. Then, the next day, our commanding officer came and said, "You guys, get shined up." They took us across the street to this house. We had no idea, we just thought the president was going to be there. But we were standing on the porch, and we heard the sound of motors coming and, one after another, big, black limousines. When we looked out, we could not believe it. Stalin came out of one, Churchill came out of another, and everybody who was on the front page of the New York Times.
This was a conference, Potsdam, in which the map of Europe was being redrawn — Vietnam was being partitioned. This was the meeting of the most powerful men on the planet who were making big decisions in the postwar world.
That's exactly right. Just as an aside, Mickey Rooney never got to appear, because my commanding officer did not know that Stalin and Churchill were going to be there. He thought just Truman, and he thought maybe that would be fun for Truman. But when they realized that Mickey doesn't translate into Russian that easily, and Churchill was about to lose his position as prime minister of Great Britain, that didn't bode well for Mickey's appearance, so he just got to stay in the tent for a week.
So, the real star power was stuck in the tent across the road, and you and List are called upon to play. What a cast of characters you were playing for!
We had no idea, of course, until we saw them get out of those cars. Truman, Stalin and Churchill came out, and there was one long sofa. Truman sat in the center, and Churchill — as befitting his politics — was on the right, and Stalin had the place of honor on the left, befitting his politics. There was a little upright piano that we were going to use, and I had put my violin there, and Truman said, "Well, gentlemen, would you play for us?" So, I went over behind the piano to get my violin, and the fellow who was acting as Stalin's aide, I tell you, he leaped across the room in one step. He was across the room at my side — I will never forget his face watching me open the case and take out the violin and the bow, and then he relaxed and he went back.
You were not an undercover hit man who had been sent to assassinate Stalin, as demonstrated.
I'm delighted to learn that the first piece you play is one of my favorite violin pieces, which is the Kreisler Praeludium and Allegro, the piece that Kreisler said was written by a composer named Pugnani.
Yeah, he just didn't think that his music would be accepted.
You also played a Tchaikovsky piece, I gather, and that got a rise out of Stalin.
Eugene just decided on the spur of the moment to play the theme of the Tchaikovsky concerto. Stalin leaped to his feet and said, "A toast to the musicians!" Somebody grabbed a vodka from a tray that one of his aides was holding.
This would have been a remarkable experience for anyone, but you were all of 19 years old when this was happening!
Well, I'll tell you, I've been nervous in my life. I've been a professional musician for God knows how many years — 60, 70 years. And I still remember when I saw these people come out and take a seat, on that love seat. I don't know if you can call it a love seat with those three people, but anyway. And then I had to get my violin out from behind the piano and start to play. But once you start to play, and you have a familiar object in your hand, you're OK. It was just that the thought of playing for these gentlemen was way beyond what I could ever imagine. But, the president promised me, and he made good on it, that he would send me an autographed picture. So he signed it, "To an excellent violinist, Private First Class Stuart Canin, Harry Truman." Which I have and treasure.
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The Icelandic group Nordic Affect has commissioned new works for its forthcoming album, Clockworking.
Iceland might be small and isolated but the country's music scene is substantial, resonating far beyond the island nation. One Icelandic group that thrives on both new and old classical music is Nordic Affect. Formed in 2005, the quartet of women is equally at home playing 17th century dance music and newly commissioned works like Clockworking, the title track from its forthcoming album.
Once the piece gets up to speed, from its slowly churning opening, you feel like you've stepped inside a giant clock. Gears of various sizes click and spin at their own pace — some interlock, others whir along independently. The effect is calming, a Gothic stateliness.
Nordic Affect's artistic director Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir thinks of Clockworking as an rendezvous between human and machine. It harks back to a time, she says, when "rhythmical repetitions permeated life, be it through the chopping of wood, making of butter or spinning of yarn."
The sounds come from a trio of strings — violin, viola and cello — plus electronics. It's the brainchild of composer María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, member of the indie band amiina, which served as the string section for Sigur Rós. And one more indie Icelandic connection: Clockworking was mixed by Valgeir Sigurðsson, the proprietor of Greenhouse Studios and an engineer who's frequently teamed with Iceland's greatest export — Bjork.
Nordic Affect's album Clockworking is released July 31.
Tenor Jon Vickers in the title role of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1983.
With the death of Jon Vickers, opera has lost one of its most intense voices. The Canadian tenor, often hailed as one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, died Friday in Ontario. In a note to London's Royal Opera House, Vickers' family said he lost a prolonged battle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 88.
Vickers' voice was a force of nature — large, strong and well suited to heroic characters such as the lead roles in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Verdi's Otello and Beethoven's Fidelio. John Steane, in his book Singers of the Century, talks of Vickers' incomparable intensity, stating that "if there had not been, working from within, a genuine spiritual refinement, the sheer size of his voice, breadth as well as power, would surely have bludgeoned the listener into insensibility." The singer could also reduce his hurricane force to a silvery thread of tone, something approaching a croon but fully supported and dramatically absorbing.
Along with his imposing voice, Vickers inhabited his roles with penetrating earnestness, bordering on ferocity. Reviewing the tenor's 1972 recording of Tristan und Isolde, Robin Holloway wrote: "There is no doubt whatsoever about the stature of his tour de force, but it remains extreme — something unique as if the story were, just this once, literally true. I can pay no higher tribute, but I never want to hear it again." Vickers was drawn to characters who struggled from within — to Canio in Pagliacci, Don José in Carmen and Jason in Medea, which he sang opposite Maria Callas. Steane says Vickers was one of the very few singers who could match Callas "in the magnetism of performance."
His portrayal of the title character in Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes may have been the tenor's crowning achievement. As the misunderstood fisherman within a narrow-minded community, Vickers brought an explosive, if controversial intensity to the role onstage and in a 1978 recording. As Grimes, he could be savage and unpredictable, with a sneer in his voice, then shift suddenly to show a dreamy, vulnerable and tender side of the character. The composer himself had mixed feelings about Vickers' interpretation. On one hand, Britten disapproved of it and Vickers' insistence on changing some of the text. On the other hand, the opera had found a new popularity, with companies mounting productions specifically for the tenor, including New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1967.
Vickers was born Oct. 29, 1926 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and grew up in a devoutly religious household where everyone sang and played instruments — "a poor man's Trapp family," Vickers said, according to Jeannie Williams' biography Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life. He held jobs as a butcher, a Woolworth's store manager and a tool salesman before enrolling in Toronto's Royal Conservatory in 1950.
He made his stage debut as the Duke in Verdi's Rigoletto four years later. In 1957 he began singing at London's Royal Opera at Covent Garden, where he later triumphed in the demanding role of Énée in Berlioz's Les Troyens. In 1974 he sang that role at the Metropolitan Opera, along with multiple performances of Tristan and Otello, all in a stretch of six weeks.
Vickers could be a challenging colleague and his religious convictions sometimes conflicted with particular roles. He refused to sing in two major productions of Tannhäuser (at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera) claiming that "Wagner challenged the redemptive work of Jesus Christ." He was also known to scold fellow singers and conductors, and once even the audience. In a 1975 Dallas Opera production of Tristan, he reprimanded patrons during the prelude to Act 3 to "shut up your damn coughing."
"The thing that wasn't printed was that they stopped coughing," Vickers told the Dallas Morning News in 2002. "It wasn't necessary to cough."
As his career and his magnificent voice wound down, Vickers settled into his farmhouse north of Toronto, then retired in 1988, occasionally giving a master class. In 1998 he recorded Richard Strauss' Enoch Arden as narrator with pianist Marc-André Hamelin. He is survived by two daughters, three sons, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Kirill Petrenko will become the next chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018.
When the Berlin Philharmonic chooses a new chief conductor, it's a big deal. In May the orchestra, often hailed as the world's finest, sequestered itself for a secret vote and some European papers likened the event to a papal conclave. That vote failed, but on June 22 the self-governed Philharmonic suddenly announced Kirill Petrenko as its new chief conductor designate, to replace Simon Rattle in 2018.
The 43-year-old, Siberian-born Petrenko is not a marquee name and was absent from many short lists of potential Berlin candidates. He has pursued his career relatively quietly, earning praise for conducting Wagner at Bayreuth and for his work at the Bavarian State Opera, which he has directed since 2013. He made his Berlin Philharmonic debut in 2006 and has conducted the orchestra on two more occasions.
Since Petrenko is little-known (not to be confused with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conductor Vasily Petrenko — no relation) and not yet giving interviews, I called Berlin Philharmonic horn player Sarah Willis to give us an insider's perspective on why the choice is a good fit for the orchestra. Willis has played with the Philharmonic since 2001.
Tom Huizenga: Some classical music fans, especially Americans, might say that they know very little about Kirill Petrenko. He's not really a big name conductor, so when the Berlin Philharmonic chose him as its next chief conductor, it might have been something of a surprise.
Sarah Willis: I think it seems to have been a surprise for a lot of people. On the other hand, for the people, especially in Europe, Kirill Petrenko is sort of a well-kept secret. Everything he does really turns to gold. He's so respected in the profession, but he's someone that doesn't do many interviews. He hasn't got a high media profile. So, yes, I expect that many people found that a very unusual choice, those who hadn't heard of him before, but I assure you, you will be hearing a lot about him.
Was he on your or the other Berlin Philharmonic players' radar for a while?
He's been on our radar for a while. The first time I played with him was in 2009 and also that's when I got to meet him by interviewing him for the [Berlin Philharmonic's] Digital Concert Hall. I remember having to persuade him to do that one — I went in and practically begged and said, "Please, maestro, please! I'll be very nice, I'll be very gentle." And he said "Okay, well, only if Lars Vogt comes along as well." So we did the interview, all three of us, and it was great. But I remember asking him in that interview how he felt, and I remember him saying he was very shy standing there for the first time. But also I remember very strongly the feeling of seeing him right at the beginning of the rehearsal and just knowing that there's something very special. Most of my colleagues were all feeling the same thing. What usually happens when a new conductor comes is we all talk amongst ourselves during the coffee breaks about whether we're going to invite him back. But with Maestro Petrenko, it was like, "When are you coming back?" It was really love at first sight. We really appreciated what he was doing.
Had you heard him conduct before he guest conducted the Berlin Philharmonic?
I had, yes, because he was at [Berlin's] Komische Oper before, so he was known to Berliners. He had done some great productions at the Komische Oper, so I'd heard some of those things before.
Was he always a leading candidate for the job?
All I can say is that we were obviously spoiled for choice. There are so many great conductors out there at the moment and everybody had their own favorite and everybody knew who they would like. It just was a question of finding out where the camps lay. And Kirill Petrenko's name came up and obviously people had been giving it a lot of thought. And he got the job, so obviously that shows there was a lot of support for him.
There's this interview that you did with Petrenko, that you talked about, and you tell him that the orchestra couldn't wait to invite him back. The musicians were smiling in rehearsals and your face, in the video, is just beaming with delight. Why all this joy over Petrenko?
For me, it was like playing chamber music with someone for the first time, and you just know it's going to work. And that's one of the most wonderful things about music, is that you can play with great musicians and it works well, but you have to work on little corners and the little things. But then comes along a musician where you just feel like he's speaking your language and it just clicks. That is really the feeling I had with Petrenko on the very first day he was there. I understood what he wanted. I appreciated the way he showed it.
In the concerts, if you look at the end of the Scriabin video — Le Poème de l'extase — you will know exactly what I'm talking about. This guy gives his absolute all in concerts and my heart just burst. I knew it at the very beginning that this was something very special. He hasn't been there very often so we are taking, of course, a little bit of a chance. He's not a pop star, he's not someone who's been around for a long time. It's all about the music with him.
Some of the things you just mentioned — this special feeling of music making — are important, but why do you think he's going to make a particularly good fit with the Berlin Philharmonic?
I think he's going to bring all of his passion to our orchestra, which is a great thing. I think he's going to bring a lot of forward thinking to the orchestra. He's also going to bring a lot of discipline — the guy works all day. I never knew him to finish a rehearsal a second earlier than was planned. You know how orchestra musicians love to be let off five minutes early — that never happened with him. And he really takes it to different levels, and I think his ability to do that is going to be a great thing for us.
You talked a little bit about it already, but how do you know when a conductor is hitting it off good an orchestra? Is it like dating? Do you get some kind of undefinable giddy feeling, like there are these vibes?
I like that comparison, that it's like dating. I can't really speak for myself because we're 128 musicians and everyone has their own very strong opinions in my orchestra. But, as you can see, we voted him in, so obviously the majority were feeling like I did. I think it is a little bit like dating and, like I said, with chamber music. You just sense right at the beginning if this is going to work, and it did. It's a great feeling when that happens. It doesn't always happen in music like that. You can meet someone, play for someone, who you think, "Yeah, that's okay." Then they work very well but in the concert it's sort of maybe not quite as inspiring as you'd hope — or someone who doesn't work very well but then comes alive in concert. But with Petrenko, I had the feeling that it was really both. It worked really well, and the concerts were electrifying.
In a video interview that you gave for Deutsche Welle about Petrenko you say, "He doesn't do much, but what he does do is perfect."
Yeah. He's not a showman. Petrenko doesn't think about whether this gesture will look good. At least, that's not the feeling I get. What he does just works. It's a question of body language and I think anyone who watches any videos of his will see what I'm talking about. The problem is there isn't much of him out there because he hasn't been the biggest media person up until now. I think he's very aware that that's all going to change, especially with the Digital Concert Hall and all the touring that we're going to be doing. As I say, we don't know him all that well yet, so I think it was a big surprise to us all that a lot of us felt like that.
Do you get any sense of what his personality is like?
I only met him personally for this [Digital Concert Hall] interview. Otherwise I was just in the orchestra. I found him very shy, very humble, but incredibly genuine. I found it very touching that he could be like that and be such a big maestro.
What's his podium demeanor like? Is he easy to follow?
He's very easy to follow. But I've only played two or three concerts with him, so it's a little hard to say. I've watched some things he's done and in Bayreauth — they're all raving about him. He's very polite but knows exactly what he wants and he can explain that in very few words. He's not one of those conductors who will talk for hours so people stop listening. He really says what he needs very concisely and he doesn't have to say too much because he can show it. We like conductors like that.
Well, it helps that he's conducting an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic ...
Yeah, but sometimes it's hard to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. Because the Berlin Philharmonic obviously has its own ideas of how a piece should be and if they feel like it, they can play a piece how they want. Obviously we make an effort to see what the conductor wants, but it's quite easy for us to play a piece the way we know it. It's important that a conductor comes in and then brings his version to it and also keeps us on the straight and narrow.
I know that back when Simon Rattle was first appointed as the chief conductor, he told us here at NPR that conducting the Berlin Philharmonic was like conducting 128 Laurence Oliviers. All these superstars.
[Laughs] I remember Simon at the beginning conducting a Bruckner symphony and he stopped, and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, it sounds absolutely amazing. And it's nothing at all like what I'm conducting." Another time, in a Mahler symphony, he tried to conduct a little rubato bit, and he stopped and said, "I'm sorry, but you're playing for Claudio [Abbado]." And we really were! We were playing the piece that way Claudio used to conduct it and Simon wanted to do something different.
You mentioned that you are looking forward to some changes that Petrenko could make as the next conductor. Any ideas about what changes he might make?
I'm not sure whether I meant changes changes, because I don't know enough about him to know exactly what he will want to change, but obviously every new conductor will want to bring his own ideas into the orchestra. Petrenko, the way I can judge his character now, I think he's going to come in very respectfully. I don't think he's going to bring a thousand changes with him. He's going to come and see what it's all about and maybe introduce a few things. But I really don't know him well enough to say what they will be.
We just talked about the orchestra playing things how they want to ...
I'm not saying that we play how we want to — we can play pieces how we know them. But that's why we appreciate it when conductors come and really show off what they want, because it's very easy to play how you know. I'm not saying we do it on purpose. That would be mean.
How would any conductor work with changing the sound of an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic.
I don't know many conductors that want to change the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic. I think that's what they enjoy. The Berlin Philharmonic has such a unique sound. This huge string body, which is just incredible. I've never heard a string sound like it — you can bathe in it. I don't think a conductor comes in with the intention to change it. They come in with the intention of making the best job with what they have and bringing their ideas into that. I've rarely found that someone wants to change the sound. Except when the brass are loud, but that's normal. Brass are always too loud.
[Laughs] Well, what happens in the orchestra when a conductor wants things that maybe some of the players in the orchestra don't want? I'm sure not everyone was in love with every interpretation Rattle has made over the years.
Of course, but that's normal. An orchestra is like a family. We spend most of our time together. When the head of the family wants something, some of the family will think it's great and the rest of the family may not think it's great from time to time, but it's the head of the family, so that's what happens.
So, a virtuoso orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic ... can you be challenged these days? Is there anything that can mess with your heads musically?
Sure. We definitely have our challenges. For example, we just played an evening of film music in the Waldbühne, our open air concert, for the end of the season. I remember Simon telling us the week before, he said, "Guys, get the music, you can't sight read this." And there were a few huffs, but he was absolutely right. We don't sight read very much in our orchestra. Our first rehearsals tend to be interesting. But what I admire so much about this orchestra is that the second rehearsal is always amazing, so much better.
For film music, it's stuff that you Americans can just play in your sleep — Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., all this wonderful John Williams stuff, Ben Hur, Robin Hood. You guys know all this, but we were lost! It took time and he was absolutely right. Everybody had to take away their parts and practice like crazy.
Simon has brought amazing, fantastic modern pieces to us over the last 15 years, and that was something the orchestra hadn't done so much of before. And that was also a challenge but now it's sort of routine, that he brings these weird and wonderful pieces to us. Some of them I love, some of them I don't, but I'm just really happy that I've gotten to know so much. We had another challenge with Porgy and Bess, which is something you Americans can play in your sleep. For us, it was not so easy to do the "swing."
I'm so glad that Simon Rattle has been such a champion of Thomas Adès, because I really love his music. I wonder if you have any notion of what Petrenko, repertoire-wise, might bring to the orchestra at this point.
I don't have any notion, to be perfectly honest. I played two Russian programs with him and then he did an Elgar symphony. He hasn't done that much Beethoven or Bruckner in his life, I don't think, so that will be really interesting to see his interpretations of these. I'm sure he'll be bringing the bread and butter, but I can imagine he'll be someone who will bring some new stuff. Also, what I'm really looking forward to is playing operas with him. He's going to be fantastic in the pit. They adore him at Bayreuth and I think he's going to be a wonderful addition for our opera repertoire.
Do you think he might do what Alan Gilbert does in New York and bring some concert versions of opera to the Philharmonic?
I would absolute adore that if he did, and I think it would be a wonderful thing for us. What Alan did with Sweeney Todd, for example, that was just unforgettable. That was such a wonderful thing. So, yes, please! Maestro Petrenko, bring us some concertante operas and musicals!
You say he might bring some Germanic bread and butter to the repertoire. And that got me thinking about the orchestra itself, so revered in the German repertoire — but how many musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic these days are actually German? Isn't it a truly global orchestra at this point?
We've turned into a truly global orchestra. I think we're still over half Germans, but only just. If you look only at our horn section, we have three Germans, a Scot, a Brit, a Slovenian. So yeah, we're very international. That's just the horn section alone. I love it. We always take people who play with a big, German sound. I'm English, but apparently I play with a big, German sound.
Are there some pieces that you would like to play with Petrenko once he gets on board?
I think with Petrenko it's going to be very interesting to see what he's going to bring. I couldn't say what I want to play. I am so grateful to Simon Rattle for all the pieces I've learned under his baton. He's brought things to the Berlin Phil that I wouldn't never have dreamed playing otherwise, for example Porgy and Bess and Thomas Adès, who I just adore — I studied with him, he was in my general musicianship class in college. Simon has just brought incredible repertoire — so much Janácek and then Rameau. Which conductor offers such a wide palette of music? I don't think Petrenko's going to come with such a wide palette at the beginning. I think he's going to bring what he feels comfortable with and bring things that are very important to him. And until we see what he's bringing, he might totally surprise us. Who knows.
It's going to be an adventure, that's for sure.
I think the Berlin Phil has sent out a really good signal into the music world. We've chosen to take a chief conductor who is not very showy, but he's all about the music, and he's also a bit unknown. It's an adventure for us — we're not quite sure what's going to come either, but we're all really looking forward to it. I must say, though, on a personal note, I still can't imagine the Berlin Phil without Sir Simon. It's going to be a very sad day when he leaves. I'll miss his humor more than anything — it's so great to have British humor in the orchestra.
Okay, final question: Single best thing about Petrenko?
The single best thing up until now — because I don't know him that well — I would say is his passion for the music. It is so evident in everything he does, whether it is in the rehearsal or in the concert, his absolute, all-consuming passion for the music. It is very moving and very inspiring.
You can see that in the video clips, especially the Scriabin.
I was very proud of my orchestra for posting that, because that actually says it all.
The music is so great itself, and then it's so well-played, and you see him kind of losing himself in it, with all this joy and ecstasy.
But also conductors can lose themselves and go into ecstatic places, but then they also lose their conducting, so you don't really know what's going on.
This is a well-known problem. I'm all for conductors giving their all and losing themselves, but we still need to have a beat. If you look at the Scriabin Le Poème de l'extase video, you can tell Petrenko is totally into the music but we still know what's going on.
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Dinnerstein's performance in Cuba followed the release of Broadway-Lafayette, an album of piano concertos.
Classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein is just back from Havana, where she performed with Cuba's National Youth Orchestra. She is also working with young people back in her hometown, New York. One of her goals? To introduce students to the composer she's best known for performing — Johann Sebastian Bach. She's taking digital pianos into public schools in a program she calls "Bach-packing."
Morning Edition host David Greene spoke to Dinnerstein about her trip, her methods for teaching kids about Baroque music, and her past four difficult years, which culminated in her most recent album, Broadway-Lafayette, including concertos by Ravel and American composer Philip Lasser and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.
Simone Dinnerstein: I was very surprised. You know, you go to Cuba, and it feels like, for me it feels like going to this secret world that existed all this time, but you didn't really know what was going on. Certainly, in terms of classical music, you don't really associate classical music with Cuba. It turns out that they're really being beautifully trained there, and it was a real joy to play Mozart with them.
The people in the orchestra were ages, I think, 15 to 25, and they just played so beautifully. They were really listening, and they're playing on really poor quality instruments. Actually, it's kind of fascinating — they can't afford to buy strings regularly for the string instruments, so they tune their instruments very low so that the strings won't break, which is really bizarre. We're used to the A being a certain pitch here, being A440, and there it's A336 to preserve the strings.
David Greene: I don't know much about this, but if you're higher, you're using tighter strings and there's a better chance of breaking — is that right?
Right. And also, some of the violinists there were using telephone wires as their E strings because they couldn't afford E strings. It's incredible.
That's amazing. That makes you appreciate the sound that they were creating even more.
I know. It's really amazing, and I wish I could just buy them a whole lot of strings and send them over there.
Dinnerstein wants to train kids in New York to listen, "especially how to listen for multiple voices at the same time, which is something that hardly exists in popular music," she says.
Greene: What does that mean in classical music?
Dinnerstein: Well, in a very basic way, if I was to play a Bach two-part invention, my right hand is what I call one voice — it has one sort of song, one line, one melody that it's playing. The left hand has another voice that is being played, and there's this interaction and a kind of dialogue between those two hands or those two voices, as we call them. I'll have two children come up to the piano, sitting next to each other, and I'll give them just a few notes to work with. I'll have one of them play a pattern, just make up a pattern, and then the other child has to imitate that pattern.
Dinnerstein has had some trouble maintaining her busy performance schedule at times. She shared with NPR this deeply personal side of her life:
Dinnerstein: Well, actually, the past four years my husband and I really wanted to have another child. That's quite complicated to do, because I'm away about half of each month. Unfortunately, we went through lots of difficulties trying to make this happen, and did the whole going to fertility centers and trying that route. I wound up having four miscarriages over the course of three years. Last year, I was supposed to go to Havana, and I had a miscarriage right before I was going to go, and I couldn't go. It's a very, very draining process to go through. It was really very hard to be traveling and playing concerts and dealing with these losses that I had, and I had quite a few concerts I had to cancel that were big concerts — my Paris debut, my Milan debut. Those concerts were never rescheduled. It's made me feel very unwomanly. I have a son, but not being able to have another child made me feel really awful about myself, and it's very hard to get on the stage when you feel like that.
Greene: I am so sorry. This sounds like a really tough four years you've been through.
Thank you. While I was experiencing all these different pregnancies and this whole process, a very dear friend of mine, the composer Philip Lasser, was writing a piano concerto for me. Oddly, it took him the same amount of time to write the concerto as it took for me to go through all of these different miscarriages. He was creating this piece of music for me, and I was trying to create a child.
The name of it is The Circle and the Child.
Yes, The Circle and the Child. Which is not about my miscarriages at all, but it is about the cycle of life and innocence and experience and that circularity that happens. I've always thought of my CDs almost as my musical children. You create them very lovingly and carefully and then send them out into the world, and they're a small part of you that go out there. They affect people, and you don't know how. This CD has this concerto on it as well as two other concertos that represent something from this time period, and I think there was something cathartic for me about being able to record them and, you know, bring them to life.
Well, Simone Dinnerstein, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you, and I wish you the best of luck with this CD and for happier times coming soon.
Thank you very much.
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Harry Lawrence Freeman, the Harlem Renaissance composer of the opera Voodoo.
About eight years ago, as a grad student, Annie Holt was working in Columbia University's Rare Books and Manuscripts Library when she was assigned to catalogue the work of Harry Lawrence Freeman, a largely forgotten Harlem-based composer from the early 20th century.
"It was fabulous!" she says. "I had the honor of going through all the cardboard boxes that came right from his family's house and unearthing everything, and I, for myself, discovered how amazing his story was and how amazing his music is."
Voodoo in rehearsal.
Since that experience, Holt has been trying to get one of Freeman's operas produced. Now, as the artistic director of Morningside Opera, she has collaborated with Harlem Opera Theater and the Harlem Chamber Players to present two concert performances of Freeman's 1928 opera, Voodoo.
Holt says Freeman wrote both the music and libretto for Voodoo. He set the opera on a Louisiana plantation in the Reconstruction period, a choice Holt says attracted her to the work from a historical perspective.
"For me, that was a really interesting topic," she says, "especially looking at Freeman's historical moment during the Harlem Renaissance and the idea of African-Americans reflecting upon racial identity in the 75 years after the Civil War."
Freeman was born in Cleveland, Ohio shortly after the Civil War. He began to write operas when, at the age of 18, he heard German composer Richard Wagner's Tannhauser. Freeman moved to Harlem in 1908, established both a music school and the Negro Grand Opera Company, and was a friend and colleague of Scott Joplin. Freeman wrote more than 20 operas in his lifetime.
Harlem Opera Theater's artistic director, Gregory Hopkins, says while he hears Wagner's influence in Freeman's music, he hears a lot of other influences, too.
"Certainly you hear the colloquial music of the time — there's a cakewalk, there's a buck dance, there's even a voodoo dance," Hopkins says. "And you hear the interpolation of spirituals, which were so important to development of the entire artistic tapestry of the Renaissance."
The use of spirituals in the context of Voodoo is very much plot-driven. The story, which is a classic love triangle between two women and one man, hinges on a spurned lover's turning her back on her faith to use the magical powers of voodoo. She conjures a giant python and a magic tree and even kills her rival — who is then revived, miraculously, by holy water, says stage director Melissa Crespo.
"It's a battle of Christianity, and it's a battle of the voodoo magic at play and, you know, which one is gonna win," Crespo says. "It's a big, giant story; everyone has a lot of feelings, and they're feeling their feelings all over the stage! But that's the beauty of opera."
When Voodoo premiered at the Palm Garden on Broadway in 1928, it got some good notices in the African-American press, but The New York Times called it "naive," and it was never performed again. It was very much of its time, including language audiences now find racist. Although Freeman may have been known during the Harlem Renaissance, his music was never published. Even after he died, Holt says, his work met obstacles.
"He had trouble getting things produced in his lifetime and after his death it was even more difficult for his son, Valdo, who was acting as his general manager, to continue with that work," Holt says.
Freeman died in 1954 and many of his operas have never been performed. In that, he shares something in common with his friend Scott Joplin, whose opera Treemonisha was first produced 55 years after the composer's death. Hopkins says he and his collaborators hope that Voodoo will get a full production.
"I don't think the work or the composer will be obscure for too long," the conductor says.
Audiences will have a chance to make up their own minds this weekend.
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Gunther Schuller, shown conducting Charles Mingus's Epitaph in 2007, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, conductor and educator. He died Sunday at age 89.
Gunther Schuller, one of America's most wide-ranging musicians — a French horn prodigy and tireless advocate for bridging classical music and jazz — died Sunday morning in Boston, his son Ed Schuller said. Gunther Schuller was 89.
Extraordinarily active and influential as a composer, conductor and educator, he was also hailed as an author, publisher and record producer — and, not incidentally, as a friend and colleague of everyone from Miles Davis to Frank Zappa. Schuller had an omnivorous appreciation of — and heavy involvement in — music from nearly every conceivable genre. As he told The Guardian in 2010, "The thing that may make me unique is that I have simultaneously had seven full-time careers in music over the last 50 or 60 years. That's more than Leonard Bernstein."
Born in New York Nov. 22, 1925, Schuller had an early interest in music that was not happenstance. His father served as a violinist in the New York Philharmonic for more than four decades.
in 1932, his parents sent him to a boarding school for mostly international students in their native Germany, where he remained for four years. The experience was anything but happy, as Schuller lost his left eye in a knife accident, after which his parents promptly pulled him out of the school. It was also at this school where the young boy was enrolled against his will in the Nazis' Hitler Youth.
As Schuller told New Music Box editor Frank Oteri in a 2009 interview, "These private schools were supposed to be off-limits, but [Hitler] never stayed with any treaties or agreements that he ever made, and so suddenly we were all in brown uniforms. All of us kids from China, from Brazil, from everywhere. Ridiculous. And then the commandant, who was a sadist, beat the s - - - out of us once a day just for practice. And I got alarmed. I wrote my parents and said, 'What's going on here?' And they couldn't believe what I was writing them. They thought maybe I was fantasizing or exaggerating or something, but anyway they eventually inquired and were told yes, the school had been taken over by [Baldur] von Schirach who was the head of the Hitlerjugend. So it was a good thing that I got out of there."
Schuller returned with his mother to New York in 1936, and was enrolled in the choir school of St. Thomas Church. As a teenager, Schuller rapidly gained a reputation in the city as a good French horn player — good enough to drop out of high school and, at age 16, to perform Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony under Arturo Toscanini in the work's first American broadcast. Relocating to New York also provided Schuller with the opportunity to begin devouring jazz on records and by going to clubs as often as he could. He shocked his violinist father by calling music by Duke Ellington as great as Beethoven's.
After a season playing with the American Ballet Theatre, Schuller joined the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1943 as its principal horn player. He remained for two seasons before joining the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, where he served as principal until 1959. (His first book, Horn Technique, originally published in 1962, remains a standard text.) In the summers, when the Met was off-season, he played in the pits of Broadway theaters. And it was sitting in the Met's pit night after night, Schuller told Oteri, that he learned the structure of music "from the inside, sitting in that sound ... People ask me who my teacher was. Well, I didn't have any teachers. But my two teachers were the scores and playing in orchestras."
It was also during these early years in New York that Schuller's work as a composer — and what became his consuming interest in jazz — took flight along with his performing career. Eugene Goossens, the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, conducted the world premiere of Schuller's First Horn Concerto in 1945, with the composer as soloist. And three years later, a burgeoning friendship with pianist John Lewis was cemented in a historic meeting of musical minds: the recording of Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool. Lewis recommended Schuller as a hornist to Davis; Schuller went on to record with Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie.
Lewis and Schuller founded a group in 1955 called the Modern Jazz Society. Soon after, they renamed it the Jazz and Classical Music Society. In a 2010 conversation with writer Marc Myers, Schuller observed, "We felt we had to put teeth into what we were saying about jazz-classical fusion ... Many musicians felt they would wind up in trouble with the critics if they [used the word "classical"]. And they were right. John and I did use it, and that of course made it controversial." It was during this period that Schuller began using the term "third stream" to describe work that melded classical, jazz and new art music.
In 1959, Schuller gave up his job at the Metropolitan Opera and largely stopped playing to focus more fully on his own work as a composer, conductor and author. It was also soon after that he began teaching widely, first at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 1950s, and from 1963 to 1964 as a composition professor at Yale University.
His closest teaching ties, however, were in Massachusetts. At Aaron Copland's invitation, Schuller began teaching in 1963 at the Berkshire Music Center, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, now called Tanglewood. He was Tanglewood's artistic director from 1969 to 1984.
Schuller also served as president of the New England Conservatory from 1967 to 1977, and it was there that he began codifying the connections between classical and jazz within an academic setting. Under his leadership, the conservatory became the first eminent classical institution to establish a degree-granting jazz program, which he founded in 1969. It became known, following Schuller's parlance, as the Third Stream program.
Among his more than 180 compositions, Schuller wrote numerous pieces for orchestra, two operas, several concertos, many works for small groups and a number of pieces for jazz ensembles. In addition to his book on French horn technique, he authored two books on jazz as well as The Compleat Conductor, a lengthy and provocative 1998 tome in which he castigated many of the biggest names among 20th-century conductors for what he perceived as their shortcomings on the podium.
In 1994, Schuller won the Pulitzer Prize for his Of Reflections and Reminiscences, a large-scale tribute to his wife Marjorie Black, whom he had met when both were just 17 years old, and who had passed away in 1992. He was also awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1991.
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The First Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition and Festival will give competitors 13-17 years old a chance at a Cliburn victory.
The Van Cliburn Foundation is hosting its first international piano competition for young pianists — specifically 13 to 17-year-olds — beginning this weekend in Fort Worth, Tex. The main Van Cliburn International Competition, held every four years for adults, has helped launch professional careers. But with the new contest, which will be webcast live, a question has been raised: Are we putting too much pressure on young musicians too soon?
When you're good at piano at 25 — which is about the age of most of the main Cliburn competitors — you're already amazing at 15, says Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of the Cliburn Foundation. That's because you began at age 5 or even 4, he says.
"If we can kind of scout the field when they're young, we can at least first offer them a platform to measure their skills and to learn more about the piano world," Marquis says. "Second, we can also interest them in the Cliburn brand."
But Stuart Isacoff, a pianist and a longtime music writer, questions if the Cliburn Foundation really needs to worry about marketing.
Beijing native Youlan Ji, is competing in the First Cliburn International Junior Competition.
"If someone is going to have their eyes on competitions, they're certainly going to think of the Cliburn maybe first, because it's so big, it's so important and the rewards are so great," Isacoff says.
The gold medalist from the last Cliburn competition in 2013, Vadym Kholodenko, won three years of international concert bookings, professional management, $50,000 and clothing from Neiman-Marcus. Because of the rewards, pressure on adult Cliburn competitors is intense. Isacoff worries gifted kids in the new junior contest — who could win up to $12,000 in cash and scholarship money — may be too young to handle that kind of stress.
"There are some very sensitive kids who may have great talents and should be carefully nurtured and not put under too much pressure too soon," Isacoff says.
Marquis agrees that the kids are bright, talented and sensitive. But he thinks they can deal with the competition.
"They have this unique free mind about playing the piano," Marquis says. "They want to share music with others, and I think they play without fear. You get the fear at 17, 18, when you realize you're almost there. At 15, you go and say hey — enjoy."
Fifteen-year-old Bejing native Youlan Ji has been playing for about half her life and is now a pre-college student at Juilliard in New York. She's not a fan of competitions, and she feels the pressure, but she's also a junior competitor.
"For me, it's more a learning experience, because every time I go to a big competition, I don't just expect to win anything or to do anything big," Ji says. "But all my peers, I learn so much from them, and I think that's why we compete."
Seventeen-year-old Adam Balogh, from Hungary, is in the Cliburn Junior Competition.
Ji is already in Fort Worth for a piano festival and master classes, along with 17-year-old Adam Balogh from Hungary. To show their camaraderie, Ji gave him a high-five when she learned they've both lived mostly on their own, to study away from home, since they were 14. Balogh is also a Cliburn Junior competitor.
"Competitions for me are not something where I have enemies. I think, what she said before, that we all prepare and we all do our best," Balogh says. "I think it shouldn't be even called competing. We're just here to get experiences."
Experience and publicity. Balogh wants to make a life in music but says he still has lots to learn — though that hasn't kept him from posting a music video on YouTube.
Seminars during the Cliburn Junior Competition will provide some lessons for these young pianists. In between competition rounds, top players will hold sessions on everything from launching new careers to selecting the right piano and repertoire.
They're just the type of lessons that could come in handy if the young musicians choose to enter the main Van Cliburn competition when they're older.
Weekend Edition Saturday
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Composer Terry Riley (center) celebrates his 50th birthday in 1985 with his muses in the Kronos Quartet (from left) David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt and Joan Jeanrenaud.
Composer Terry Riley turns 80 Wednesday. He's been called the father of minimalism for his groundbreaking 1964 work In C. But his influence has spread far beyond, sparking the imaginations of many artists, from cutting-edge electronic musicians to rock gods.
Riley's musical footprints have been followed by generations of musicians. Compare his A Rainbow in Curved Air, for example, with The Who's "Baba O'Riley," named partly in honor of the composer.
Popular music was Riley's first inspiration. "Well, you know, I grew up in the age of radio," he says, "so I liked the people that I heard on the radio, like Bing Crosby. I found all music to have really powerful transmission, so whatever I was listening to sounded really great to me. I was learning all the time. At the same time, I was trying to pick out these tunes on the piano because I didn't have any formal training, so I was learning to play by ear."
Riley was born in California, and played ragtime piano at a San Francisco saloon while he was still studying at UC Berkeley. His love of music took him to Paris, Spain, Morocco, New York, India and beyond. And all of those influences have come together in his music.
In C was Riley's breakthrough. The sheet music is just one page long — plus two pages of open-ended instructions — but its possibilities are literally endless. Riley only specifies 53 short phrases, and leaves it up to the individual musicians to decide how many times they'll play each one. In C helped usher in a momentous change in music, and created a bridge between improvised and composed music.
The composer sensed its import right away. "When I wrote it," Riley says, " I felt it was a revolutionary idea, and that it would have that kind of impact, that it would be new and it would have an effect on other musicians. I knew that because the idea had that kind of effect on me. But I could never envision that it would sort of become part of a tradition and be a kind of centerpiece for tradition."
That tradition came to be called minimalism. In C still galvanizes audiences. Musicians continue to find new ways to play it — including artists from Mali, in West Africa, who recently recorded their own version of the piece.
"The Malian performance is a good example of allowing musicians to be very creative with a form, and use still a recognizable In C," Riley says. "But it's treated so freely that you see it as a whole new piece."
"I'd never met anybody that had the aura, the sensibility, the feeling that I got from Terry Riley that very first time," recalls David Harrington. He is the founder and first violinist of the Kronos Quartet, and he first met Riley in the late 1970s at Mills College in California, where they were both teaching.
Because so much of Riley's music is inspired by his love of improvisation, Harrington says that it took some doing for the composer and the quartet to find common ground. His group needed some notes on a page.
"I remember the very first time we went up to his ranch and rehearsed. He showed me his thumb, and he said his thumb really hurt from all the notes he was writing for us," Harrington says laughingly.
Since then, Riley has written 27 works for Kronos, but he's also composed for orchestra, piano and many other instruments and ensembles.
"My preference in music has always been in improvisation for my own performance," Riley says. "I like to be in the moment, and I like to not have something in mind all the time when I'm starting to play. When I'm writing, I like to have an improvisatory feeling in my mind at the same time, so that I'll take ideas and run them through my mind in many different ways and see how many variations I can come up with. In a sense, I'm always improvising, and at some point I have to decide, "Okay, this has to be fixed so somebody else can play it."
Improvisation is at the heart of North Indian classical music, which Riley has been studying very seriously since 1970. And that study has helped him tap into something much bigger.
"My teacher, Pandit Pran Nath, used to say, 'Nada brahmam,' which means 'musical sound is God,'" Riley says. "I always viewed that, if there was a God, if there was a supreme being, he would be music, or she would be music. To worship that would be to be a performer and a composer, to try to make the most beautiful offerings you could to that."
Terry Riley often speaks of the sound current that he says is available to all of us all the time. And throughout his work, he invites us all to tune in.
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Mahan Esfahani's new album, Time Present and Time Past, combines Baroque and minimalist works for the harpsichord.
"The harpsichord is an easy target, isn't it?" Those are the fighting words of Mahan Esfahani, a good-humored harpsichordist who is a proud defender of his instrument.
With his new album, Time Present and Time Past, Esfahani sets Baroque music and minimalism side by side to prove his point that the harpsichord is as relevant today as it was back in the time of Bach and Vivaldi.
Esfahani sat down to talk with NPR about the new album. His sparring partner was All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. The two traded friendly jabs — and a lot of laughter.
Robert Siegel: "Two skeletons copulating on a tin roof." That's how conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once famously dismissed the sound of the harpsichord. The harpsichord has had a rough ride — it was displaced by the piano — but the old instrument has its devotees and champions, including Mahan Esfahani. Welcome to the program.
Mahan Esfahani: Thank you, it's a great pleasure.
On this album you play both Baroque music and also minimalist music. To begin with, explain your love of this not hugely popular instrument, the harpsichord.
Well firstly, you know, Robert — if I may call you that — I have a huge respect for your work. But if you don't mind, I'm going to, in a friendly tone, take issue with almost everything you've said so far, which is that it's old and it's not enormously popular. I think these things would only matter to Americans. As long as there's a place for sundials and gardening and beautiful things, there's a place for the harpsichord. I completely reject the idea that the harpsichord is old and I reject the idea that something old is therefore not good or not popular. Lots of things are old. Lots of traditions are old. I like it because it's beautiful.
But were you at some point at a fork in the road where you were either to be a pianist or a harpsichordist?
Not really, no. I played piano. I've always liked piano, and my father played piano. Actually, to be fair, the sound of the harpsichord did annoy him a bit, and I thought, "How can I annoy Dad? I'll play the harpsichord." So you know, it was a bit of teenage rebellion — and I'm being serious about that, actually. But the harpsichord I just always had a love for.
The first track on the album Time Present And Time Past is by Scarlatti. That's one of the Baroque pieces, but then we have an adaptation of Steve Reich's piece Piano Phase for two pianos. It sounds a little bit like an electric guitar.
Well, a harpsichord is kind of a big guitar, isn't it? I mean it is plucked, after all. I had a good time recording that piece. I think it's fabulous. I think Steve Reich completely redefined musical language.
You've talked about your love of both Baroque music and minimalist music and of finding something in common between the two. How do you express that?
When I say that there's commonality, I mean more in terms of the sort of techniques by which we perceive Baroque and minimalist music rather than the techniques used to compose them. I know that's being sort of overly complicated. But I think in Baroque music, especially in the case of Bach, what really transformed Bach's musical language, what changed it for him, was hearing Vivaldi, hearing the manipulation of small cells of information and patterns in order to generate huge blocks of harmony.
You also include a composition by Henryk Górecki in this album.
Yes. Górecki — there's a kind of personal thing there for me. I had kind of become obsessed with that Soviet bloc period. Actually, a lot of composers in the Soviet bloc — Górecki's not the only one — are writing for the harpsichord as a reaction against enforced Soviet realism, expressionism, enforced modernism. The harpsichord was, ideologically, considered a very questionable instrument in that period, much like I think it's ideologically considered suspect today in some circles.
Why? Was the idea that it was associated with the aristocracy in that time, in the pre-modern time, was that the problem for the harpsichord?
I think that was a big issue. Already in the French Revolution, the harpsichord becomes identified with the aristocracy, with the ancien régime. Plus hey, you know, the harpsichord is a really easy target, isn't it? I mean, it's just how it is.
I thought the problem with the harpsichord was also that it lacked the dynamic range, that you couldn't make notes louder or softer. That was the problem.
Is it? I didn't know that? Is that the problem?
I'm not speaking as a musician, Mahan, but that's the rumor I've heard, yes.
You know, there's a lot of misinformation. I mean, there are still people who think that the Earth is flat.
All of the evidence that we can bring to light that there was evolution and that the Earth is round still hasn't convinced some people. Look, to me the harpsichord has a huge dynamic range. I always say to people, "Come and listen to it." Come and actually experience this and realize there's good harpsichord playing, there's bad harpsichord playing.
By the way, I am fun outside of this context. Don't worry, man! [Laughs]
You're fun in this context also! I'm having a fine time. But, just to explain, can you play a note on the harpsichord so that it's pianissimo or so that it's fortissimo?
Well, within a phrase and with a series of phrases you can certainly create the effect of diminuendo and crescendo, no question. One of the tracks that I have is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, his Variations on "La Follia." You'll definitely hear a wide range of colors that the harpsichord is capable of. I think that gives lie to the assumption that it doesn't have that kind of variety, and I think it very much speaks for itself.
Are you finding composers writing for harpsichord today?
Absolutely. It's really thrilling, actually. I think for someone who does play, let's say, old music or Baroque music or Renaissance music — and I do play a lot of that, obviously — engaging with new composers, engaging with young composers, is really exciting because it makes me look at people of the past in a very different way. They're also living. There was a lot of subjectivity in the decisions that they were making. It totally has transformed my relationship with someone like, say, Bach. Bach was born 330 years ago but gosh, he really is alive.
The last piece on Time Present and Time Past is Johann Sebastian Bach's Harpsichord Concerto. You said you've arrived at a new relationship with Bach. Tell me more about that.
Bach, of course, was my first love. He still is. I mean, he's the man in my life, that's for sure. When I say that there's been a re-evaluation, look — to be perfectly honest — I think I have a re-evaluation of my relationship with Bach probably every day. That will never stop. That's probably why I still get up in the morning and I do this.
Mahan Esfahani, thank you very much for talking with us about your album and about your instrument.
It's been a great pleasure, and I say to people: Keep you ears and your minds open.
And let me say that I personally have nothing against the harpsichord.
[Laughs] Hey, makes one of us!
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