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

Richard McCaffrey/Courtesy of Kronos Quartet

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.

Mahan Esfahani's new album, Time Present and Time Past, combines Baroque and minimalist works for the harpsichord.

Bernhard Musil/Deutsche Grammophon

"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.

[Siegel laughs]

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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Michael Giacchino (left), pictured with director Colin Trevorrow, composed the music for this summer's Jurassic World, the latest score in a prolific, blockbuster career.

Michael Giacchino (left), pictured with director Colin Trevorrow, composed the music for this summer's Jurassic World, the latest score in a prolific, blockbuster career.

Maria Giacchino

If you see any blockbuster films this summer, chances are you'll hear Michael Giacchino's music. He scored the futuristic Tomorrowland as well as Inside Out, an animated film about the emotions living inside a little girl. Soon, he'll also help audiences return to the island of resurrected dinosaurs in Jurassic World, a project that's especially significant for film and for Giacchino himself.

Giacchino, who won an Oscar in 2010 for his bittersweet score for Up, didn't always know he wanted to compose music for the movies. But he always knew he was destined to spend his life inside them.

"There was something about just the idea of making films that was a combination of almost every art form you could imagine," he says.

Filmmaking became Giacchino's obsession at an early age. He grew up in Edgewater Park, N.J., far from Hollywood, but he spent hours and hours inside movie theaters. One director made movies that stood above the rest: Steven Spielberg.

"He was my first film school teacher, really, unbeknownst to him," Giacchino says. "When I wasn't able to get myself to a theater to re-watch, you know, E.T. for the hundredth time, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Star Wars, the only way to relive those movies was to listen to the soundtrack." When he did go to the theaters, Giacchino would sneak in tape recorders so he could listen to the soundtracks later.

"I still have all those cassettes," he says. "I would just listen to Raiders of the Lost Ark over and over and over."

Giacchino decided he wanted to compose music for film while in college, but he wound up working in the publicity department at Disney, which took him out to Los Angeles and eventually to an assistant producer job at Disney Interactive. He became the company's go-to source for music knowledge, listening to every demo CD that came in.

"I would look at these CDs and listen to them, and I'd be thinking, 'I could do that,' " Giacchino says. Eventually, he suggested to Disney that he could write the music himself, and it let him set up a music studio in its offices.

He ended up at DreamWorks Interactive a few years later, where he continued plugging away as a video game producer. In 1997, DreamWorks was making a Lost World: Jurassic Park game for the PlayStation while Spielberg was shooting the movie, the first sequel to Jurassic Park. One day, Giacchino got a phone call from the game's producer, Patrick Gilmore, asking him to write a piece of music for an animation reel to be shown to Spielberg. Giacchino wrote the music that night, handed it in the next morning, and went back to his office. Then, he got another phone call from Gilmore.

"He said, 'Hey, could you come down? Steven would like to talk to you.' My head was elsewhere, and I remember saying, 'Steven who?' And he was like, 'Steven Spielberg. Remember, our boss?' " Giacchino says. He had no idea what Spielberg would say when they shook hands.

"He asked me, 'So when are we recording this with the live orchestra?' " Giacchino says. Although the CEO and the CFO of DreamWorks Interactive had previously said they would never use live instruments, Spielberg changed their minds. The Lost World became the first console game to have music played by a real orchestra, which led to the Medal of Honor game series. A young writer/producer named J.J. Abrams played those games, and liked the music so much he contacted Giacchino about scoring his TV show Alias.

"You know, Michael's music was incredibly cinematic and emotional and had amazing depth and richness," Abrams says. "It was just the kind of music that I would find myself listening to in headphones when I was writing. It just felt like, clearly, whoever was writing this music was as obsessed with the scores that I was familiar with growing up."

After Alias, Abrams asked Giacchino to score the TV series Lost, and then all of his movies — including Mission: Impossible 3, Super 8 and the massively successful revival of Star Trek. For Abrams, Giacchino's talent comes from more than just a musical source.

"He's someone who, since I first met him, felt like he was a childhood friend, though he wasn't," Abrams says. "I think the thing that makes his music so emotional and so relatable and potent is because he has a big heart. And while he can write incredibly intense and dark stuff too, what I love about Michael is that it all comes from a sense of humanity and humor."

It's that humanity that allows Giacchino to conjure up such diverse sonic worlds as The Incredibles, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and this summer's Inside Out. But it always comes back to dinosaurs. So when he was asked to score Jurassic World, it was a no-brainer.

"It was dinosaurs, it was everything that sort of launched me into this insane business," Giacchino says. While following in the footsteps of John Williams, who scored the original Jurassic Park, was intimidating, the task couldn't have felt more natural.

"It was just like coming home, in this weird, strange way," Giacchino says.

And it all started with a phone call. To this day, Giacchino wonders: "What would have happened if I had gotten a flat tire that day or something?"

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Hear William Berger Discuss 'Tristan und Isolde'

Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld and his wife Malwina were Wagner's original Tristan and Isolde in 1865.

Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld and his wife Malwina were Wagner's original Tristan and Isolde in 1865.

Joseph Albert/Wikimedia Commons

Artistic revolutions are rarely born easy. They complained about cubism, they grumbled about the "talkies" — and boy, did they bellyache over Wagner's trailblazing operas, especially Tristan und Isolde, which debuted 150 years ago Wednesday.

A four-hour epic meditation on love and death, the opera was considered unperformable in 1860 when Wagner finished it. Slated for a debut in Vienna the following year, Tristan was ditched after 77 rehearsals. But Wagner never gave up. Finally, after another four years, Tristan received its premiere in Munich June 10, 1865.

The Valkyries, led by Brunnhilde (soprano Debra Voigt, lower left), are the warrior maidens of Richard Wagner's epic Ring cycle.

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William Berger, author of Wagner Without Fear, points to Tristan as a musical revolution. "From literally the first bar of the score, Wagner reinvents the art of music," Berger says. He's talking about the famous "Tristan chord," a misty, unorthodox cluster of notes that, with its unresolved nature, launched volumes of scholarly opinion as to how and why it casts its distinctive spell.

Berger's own opinion is focused not only on Wagner's radical, untethered harmonies, which paved the way for atonal music to emerge in the early 20th century, but also the amorphous language of a simple love triangle, projected on a cosmic level.

"Tristan und Isolde of Wagner is a love story but it's very different from anything familiar," Berger says. "This is the union of souls on an extreme metaphysical level. This touches on the mystical union of light and dark, and life and death, and every sort of duality."

And then there's the libretto, written by Wagner himself, which Berger says anticipates modern poetry. "There's a point at which they are no longer trying to be syntactically logical," he says. "In other words, they get out into the 'twinkie zone.'"

The opera, Berger says, "shows you that these are people who are in love on a concrete level, but they're also ideas that are swirling in and out of each other in a much more vaporous dimension."

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Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote six exuberant symphonies.

Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote six exuberant symphonies.

Royal Danish Library

"Quirky" is a descriptor that seems to have stuck to Danish composer Carl Nielsen, born 150 years ago on June 9, 1865.

Take A Tour Of Nielsen's Symphonies

The late music critic Michael Steinberg said Nielsen was a "very great and very quirky composer at the same time." New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert, who recently wrapped up the orchestra's Carl Nielsen Project, says there's something "different and quirky" about the composer's music.

Sample almost any spot in his symphonies and you'll find Nielsen up to something just a bit unusual, from harmonies and melodies that don't quite align to ambiguous phrases, seesawing from major to minor keys. Then there are the more obvious episodes. Nielsen gets his Third Symphony started by hammering the same note 26 times. In his Fifth, he instructs the snare drummer to try to sabotage the entire piece, and in his final symphony, a triangle interrupts like a telephone ringing off the hook.

Still, as unconventional as Nielsen is, there's much beauty and mystery to be found in his music. Steinberg, author of The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, who died in 2009, was crazy for Nielsen. In 2001 he sat down to talk to NPR about all six symphonies, pointing to some of their more striking characteristics in his avuncular and illuminating way.

About Carl Nielsen

The son of a house painter and amateur musician, Carl Nielsen was the seventh of 12 children and grew up on Funen, often called Denmark's "Garden Island." The power of the natural world and its impact on human nature are traceable inspirations in much of his music.

At age 3 he pounded out melodies on logs in the family woodpile and as a youngster he learned the violin and herded sheep. Early on, Nielsen already displayed a sense of whimsy, as seen in the series of childhood photographs below. Later he played trombone in a military band before enrolling in the Copenhagen Conservatory.

For 16 years Nielsen made his living as an orchestral violinist. His debut as a composer came with his early chamber works in the late 1880s and his Symphony No. 1 premiered in 1894, after which the 28-year-old composer stepped out from the second violins to acknowledge the applause.

Eventually Nielsen would become a national hero, with his portrait gracing the front of the Danish 100 kroner bill. But recognition beyond Denmark would take longer. It was nearly 20 years after his death in 1931 before Nielsen's music began to attract foreign audiences, thanks to the touring Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the advent of the LP and support from star conductors such as Leonard Bernstein.

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The monks of Norcia, Italy have recorded their first album, Benedicta.

The monks of Norcia, Italy have recorded their first album, Benedicta.

Christopher McLallan/Decca

"The monastic life is very plain and ordinary," says Father Cassian Folsom, the founder and prior of the Monks of Norcia, ensconced in the St. Benedict Monastery in central Italy. "You get up, and you pray, and you do your work and go to bed and then the next day you do the same thing."

A large portion of the monks' daily routine is singing. "We chant the Divine Office and the Mass every day," Folsom tells NPR's Scott Simon. "And if you put all of those moments together it takes about five hours a day. Three hundred sixty-five days a year."

Now the monks have cut an album, Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia. It will likely do well on the charts, as many Gregorian chant recordings before them have, beginning in 1994 with the surprise hit album Chant. That was from another group of Benedictine monks, at the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, in Spain; the album has reportedly sold nearly six million copies. For Folsom, he's just hoping people are moved by the beauty and peaceful quality of the music on Benedicta.

A Massachusetts native who studied music at Indiana University, Folsom gathered his order of monks in Rome in 1998. But in 2000 they were invited to transfer to Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict, where no monks had lived for nearly 200 years. The Norcia order is a truly international group with members from Brazil, Germany, Indonesia, Canada and the U.S.

A flight of beers to accompany some musical flights of fancy.

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Composer Robert Kyr at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert

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Besides singing and praying, a more recent daily concern of the monks is beer.

"We starting brewing beer three years ago for a couple of reasons," Folsom explains. "To have work that the monks can do together. And we needed some work that provided income for the monastery. So we learned the art of brewing from the trappist monks in Belgium and found a niche in the Italian market, because craft beer is becoming much more popular in Italy than in the past."

Folsom also says their beer provides some handy common ground between the monks and the general populace: "Because even if somebody's a not a believer they can talk about beer."

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From a 2012 New York Philharmonic production of Candide, Marin Alsop conducts a cast that includes (from right) Kristin Chenoweth, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Paul Groves and Janine LaManna.

From a 2012 New York Philharmonic production of Candide, Marin Alsop conducts a cast that includes (from right) Kristin Chenoweth, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Paul Groves and Janine LaManna.

Randy Brooke/WireImage

Leonard Bernstein often said: "Every author spends his entire life writing the same book." The same could apply to composers.

Probing the existential questions that haunt us was a hallmark of Bernstein both as a person and composer. He was not satisfied unless he was immersed in major issues, upending and questioning the status quo, often with irreverence and insouciance. That was what made Bernstein so much fun to be around and imbued his music with such depth for me.

How many people would even consider turning Voltaire's satirical novella from 1759, Candide, into musical theater, let alone jump at the opportunity?

Playwright Lillian Hellman approached Bernstein in 1953 with the concept. They delighted in the idea of drawing parallels between Voltaire's satirical portrayal of the Catholic Church's blatant hypocrisy and violence and the inquisition-like tactics then being implemented by the U.S. government under the House of Representatives' House Un-American Activities Committee.

Voltaire's charges against society in the 1750s — puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitional attacks on the individual — all rang true for Hellman and Bernstein in the 1950s. They set out with zeal to create a show that would capture a contemporary Voltaire viewpoint.

Marin Alsop conducts Candide in New York in 2012.

While there is clear brilliance in Bernstein's Candide, the show fell victim to its own weighty agenda and its authors' cleverness. Candide may be the most labored over Broadway show in history, enduring many incarnations since it opened in 1956.

But there can be no doubt about the brilliance of Bernstein's score, which he conceived as a Valentine's card to European music. Few composers could construct a score where European dance forms like the gavotte, waltz and polka are interwoven seamlessly with bel canto arias, Gilbert and Sullivan-style comedy, grand opera and Bernstein's own "Jewish tango."

It reminds me of an evening I spent with Bernstein. It started out with a discussion of a Schumann symphony and ended up with him at the piano, playing every song the Beatles wrote. Connecting the dots was his genius for me, but the fact that he never lost his capacity to believe in the inherent goodness of humankind was his gift to the world.

From the cleverness and clarity of Candide's overture, through the biting sarcasm of "Auto-da-fé (What a Day)" and then to bring us full circle to the unwavering optimism of "Make our Garden Grow" is Bernstein at his best.

(Marin Alsop conducts a semi-staged version of Candide June 11-14 in Baltimore and North Bethesda, Md., with NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! host Peter Sagal as narrator.)

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From a 2012 New York Philharmonic production of Candide, Marin Alsop conducts a cast that includes (from right) Kristin Chenoweth, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Paul Groves and Janine LaManna.

From a 2012 New York Philharmonic production of Candide, Marin Alsop conducts a cast that includes (from right) Kristin Chenoweth, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Paul Groves and Janine LaManna.

Randy Brooke/WireImage

Leonard Bernstein often said: "Every author spends his entire life writing the same book." The same could apply to composers.

Probing the existential questions that haunt us was a hallmark of Bernstein both as a person and composer. He was not satisfied unless he was immersed in major issues, upending and questioning the status quo, often with irreverence and insouciance. That was what made Bernstein so much fun to be around and imbued his music with such depth for me.

How many people would even consider turning Voltaire's satirical novella from 1759, Candide, into musical theater, let alone jump at the opportunity?

Playwright Lillian Hellman approached Bernstein in 1953 with the concept. They delighted in the idea of drawing parallels between Voltaire's satirical portrayal of the Catholic Church's blatant hypocrisy and violence and the inquisition-like tactics then being implemented by the U.S. government under the House of Representatives' House Un-American Activities Committee.

Voltaire's charges against society in the 1750s — puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitional attacks on the individual — all rang true for Hellman and Bernstein in the 1950s. They set out with zeal to create a show that would capture a contemporary Voltaire viewpoint.

Marin Alsop conducts Candide in New York in 2012.

While there is clear brilliance in Bernstein's Candide, the show fell victim to its own weighty agenda and its authors' cleverness. Candide may be the most labored over Broadway show in history, enduring many incarnations since it opened in 1956.

But there can be no doubt about the brilliance of Bernstein's score, which he conceived as a Valentine's card to European music. Few composers could construct a score where European dance forms like the gavotte, waltz and polka are interwoven seamlessly with bel canto arias, Gilbert and Sullivan-style comedy, grand opera and Bernstein's own "Jewish tango."

It reminds me of an evening I spent with Bernstein. It started out with a discussion of a Schumann symphony and ended up with him at the piano, playing every song the Beatles wrote. Connecting the dots was his genius for me, but the fact that he never lost his capacity to believe in the inherent goodness of humankind was his gift to the world.

From the cleverness and clarity of Candide's overture, through the biting sarcasm of "Auto-da-fé (What a Day)" and then to bring us full circle to the unwavering optimism of "Make our Garden Grow" is Bernstein at his best.

(Marin Alsop conducts a semi-staged version of Candide June 11-14 in Baltimore and North Bethesda, Md., with NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! host Peter Sagal as narrator.)

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Composer, librettist and conductor Matthew Aucoin in rehearsal.

Composer, librettist and conductor Matthew Aucoin in rehearsal.

Jeremy Daniel/American Repertory Theater

Matthew Aucoin is being compared to Mozart, Wagner and Leonard Bernstein. He's worked with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Now this rising star is tackling his most ambitious project to date: his own new opera, for which he's composed the music, written the words and is conducting its Boston premiere. And did I mention he's just 25 years old?

Aucoin (pronounced oh-coin) has been working on his opera Crossing for more than two years. It's a dark exploration of poet Walt Whitman's time as a volunteer nurse in a Civil War hospital. The opera is based on the poet's diaries, and one entry in particular ignited Aucoin's imagination.

"Whitman describes this young southerner John Wormley staring at him, like, 'Who is this middle-aged weirdo?'" Aucoin says. "And that's basically it. He makes a cameo appearance. But I imagined who this person might have been, and entirely fictionalized it. And there are betrayals and lies and, you know, it's an opera, we gotta have the blood and guts."

This opera is something of a test for Aucoin. Throughout the genre's history, one person usually writes the music while another conjures the words. But the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. commissioned Aucoin to do both. The work received its world premiere Friday.

"I can still barely believe they took a chance on me," Aucoin says. Then he makes an observation: "Classical music is obsessed with youth, and it's obsessed with old age. If you try to act like the young hotshot, they will eat you alive."

Baritone Rod Gilfry (foreground, right) and dancer Hiroki Ichinose.

Baritone Rod Gilfry (foreground, right) and dancer Hiroki Ichinose.

Gretjen Helene Photography/American Repertory Theater

Baritone Rod Gilfry sings the role of Walt Whitman in Crossing. He's worked with the young conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. The veteran singer has performed a lot of contemporary opera, but he says this time it's different.

"He could just be a composer, he could just be a conductor, he could just be a pianist, he could just be a poet or a critic," Gilfry says. "And yet he can do all of those things simultaneously. And it's pretty remarkable."

As for the music, the baritone says it's got everything, including great choruses: "You know we've got 12 wounded soldiers who sing together these beautiful choruses that will just melt your heart."

Aucoin grew up surrounded by art, theater and music. His father, Don Aucoin, is a longtime Boston Globe drama critic, and Matthew studied at Juilliard, the Tanglewood Music Center and Harvard, where American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus started courting him.

"I think Matt is kind of a throwback to the time when you had composers who were conducting — writing the libretto that's even more than usual — but he was a poetry major here at Harvard," Paulus says.

The Tony Award-winning director was blown away when she first heard Aucoin's music. A.R.T. was already part of a national project commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and she thought: This is the guy to write our opera.

"I'm in a sort of pinch me moment of having met him in my office three years ago and just saying, 'You know you should think about A.R.T. as a home for you, and maybe there's something we can do together,'" Paulus says. "And just to think that from that one conversation was spawned this work of art is such an exciting and affirming moment for what I hope A.R.T. can do for artists and what we can contribute to the canon and in this case to new opera."

Aucoin is definitely having a moment — not only with his new opera but also with a lavish New York Times article about him published last week with a headline calling him "Opera's great 25-year-old hope." Still, the young composer has also had his doubts.

"There was a time," Aucoin says, "I'm talking when I was really young, like 11, 12, when I just got a bit depressed by the way the classical music world functioned in relation to its audience, and the way that kids my age were forced into playing music by their parents and so on. So I went off and mostly played jazz and rock for a few years, and I think it kept me from getting prematurely jaded."

Aucoin recognizes the baggage and expectations that come with being labeled the next big thing — but his eyes appear to be wide open.

"A lot of people have said you can have a career if you're a 10 year-old wizard, or you can be an old master. It's very hard in between," Aucoin says. "The best thing I can do is to make it all about the music."

Copyright 2015 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.
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Behind the Met microphone: host Margaret Juntwait, who died Wednesday at age 58.

Behind the Met microphone: host Margaret Juntwait, who died Wednesday at age 58.

Jonathan Tichler/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Margaret Juntwait was the mellifluous voice of the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday live radio broadcasts. She was also a longtime host at NPR member station WNYC in New York. Juntwait died Wednesday at age 58 of complications from ovarian cancer. The Met and WNYC have each offered tributes.

Juntwait was trained as a lyric soprano at the Manhattan School of Music. But in 1991 — with no radio experience — she wrote a fan letter to WNYC host John Schaefer, who promptly hired her as an assistant. She went on to host two music programs on the station.

In 2004 she became the first woman to host the Met's Saturday broadcasts. That same year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but continued to host the Met broadcasts for a decade. Her last broadcast was New Year's Eve.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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