by Tom Huizenga
Soprano Ailyn Perez and tenor Stephen Costello met in music school. Now married, the couple sings together around the world — as in Gounod's Romeo and Juliet at Opera Philadelphia in 2001.
Cupid's arrow has often inspired love between classical musicians. There's J.S. Bach and his second wife, Anna Magdalena, the soprano for whom he created the Anna Magdalena Notebook. There's Rossini, who wrote operas for his wife, powerful Spanish diva Isabella Colbran. Pianists and composers Robert and Clara Schumann made concert tours together. Gustav Mahler published his wife Alma's songs. And Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline DuPré's partnership in the 1960s can be heard in numerous recordings, including Elgar's Cello Concerto.
Happily, the arrows are still flying and the roster of musical matchups keeps growing. For this Valentine's Day, we offer a few contemporary couples making beautiful music.
by NPR Staff
Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles.
When the sisters of Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles aren't hard at work on the monastery grounds, they're topping the charts with albums of sacred music. The group's Angels and Saints at Ephesus topped the Billboard classical charts, and now it's releasing its latest, Lent at Ephesus. Mother Cecilia, prioress of the abbey in rural Missouri and the group's arranger, tells NPR's Renee Montagne, "We're not fabricating anything; this is just music we're pulling from our life, our everyday life."
"We're hard workers," Mother Cecilia says. "We really follow the rules of St. Benedict very closely — his ora et labora, which is 'pray and work.' And we have a small farm. We have a cow to milk twice a day, rain or shine, whether it's 100 degrees or 20 below. And then, of course, the processing of the milk; we make all sorts of dairy products for our table. And, of course, the recreation and our meal times fill up the day."
Mother Cecilia, 10 years prior, played French horn with the Columbus Symphony.
"God's ways are very mysterious, aren't they?" Mother Cecilia asks. "The poet Francis Thompson has termed God 'The Hound of Heaven' in one of his famous poems, and that's the best way I can describe how he was just after me my whole life, since I was a young girl. And for many years, I didn't even really want to think about it or face it, and I think it came out of dormancy with a couple of very profound episodes. One was my exposure to sacred music. ... It just lifted my spirit to God, and made me think on eternal things, up out of the petty things of life."
The success of the album, the profits from which will be used to pay off the abbey's debt and aid in expanding the monastery grounds, has not distracted the sisters from their ora et labora.
"The CDs are something that God has allowed to happen," Mother Cecilia says. "It's a wonderful thing insofar as it brings souls closer to God, and in the meantime helps us pay our debt, but other than that, life just flows along at the priory just the same way it did before. And that's the way we love it; that's the way we want. No tours, no concerts, you know? Just simple monastic life."
All Things Considered
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the film Philomena.
In the 1950s, Philomena Lee was a naive Irish teenager who got pregnant, gave birth in a convent, and was forced by the nuns to sign away her parental rights. The 2013 film Philomena is based on what happened five decades later, when Lee went looking for her son with the help of a journalist. Directed by Stephen Frears and starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena is up for several Academy Awards, including one in an unlikely category.
French composer Alexandre Desplat has scored dozens of films, across an astonishing range of styles and genres: Zero Dark Thirty, The King's Speech, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, two Harry Potter films. Compared to those efforts, his Oscar-nominated score for Philomena is strikingly spare, often falling silent in the moments where the drama is most potent. Desplat says the gravitas of the true story, contrasted with the lightness and humor that Dench brought to her role, made the score one of the hardest he's ever had to write.
"When I saw the film for the first time, it got me so emotional that I when I went back to my studio, I started trying to find what could reflect Judi Dench's character: This fragile, over-70-years-old lady who shows much more strength than she seems to have, who has had a hidden secret for 50 years, and who is capable of forgiveness," Desplat says. "It's difficult to imagine how music can relate to that."
As he tells NPR's Arun Rath, Desplat approached the challenge by framing his score around a persistent theme: one that follows Philomena throughout her journey, changing as she does, and yet respects the story's powerful moments of silence. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.
Tom Randle (left) and Daniel Okulitch star in the opera Brokeback Mountain.
In 2006, at the 78th Academy Awards, the film Brokeback Mountain captured three Oscars and the attention of movie fans everywhere. That two handsome stars — Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal — played the lead roles helped propel the film's popularity.
But the tale of star-crossed sheepherders who fall in love on a rugged Wyoming mountain originated long before the film, as a tightly focused short story by Annie Proulx that was published in the New Yorker in 1997.
Now Proulx and Pulitzer-winning composer Charles Wuorinen have brought Brokeback Mountain to the operatic stage. The entire production from Madrid's Teatro Real is being offered for free video streaming at Medici TV, beginning Friday at 2 p.m. ET. It will remain available for 90 days.
In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Proulx, celebrated for her colorfully succinct style of writing, said she relished the chance to craft her first opera libretto and the opportunity to expand on her protagonists a little. Wuorinen said he saw the operatic potential in the story after seeing the film: "It's a contemporary version of a universal human problem. Two people that are in love, who can't make it work and it ends badly."
by Anastasia Tsioulcas
Takashi Niigaki stepped forward today in Japan as the ghostwriter for popular composer Mamoru Samuragochi — and added another twist to the breaking story.
Update, Feb. 12: Reuters reports that in a handwritten apology sent to media in Japan today, disgraced Japanese composer Mamoru Samuragochi admitted that he is not as deaf as he previously stated, claiming: "The truth is that recently I have begun to hear a little again." Samuragochi now says that he has regained some hearing in the past three years, and can follow conversations in certain very specific conditions.
Original post, Feb. 6: It was a perfect success story: A composer overcomes his deafness to become a widely beloved cultural icon. No, we're not talking about Beethoven. This was the story arc for 50-year-old Mamoru Samuragochi, one of Japan's most popular contemporary composers, whose music became a best-selling album and is heard in the video games Resident Evil and Onimusha.
A December 2013 photo of Japanese composer Mamoru Samuragochi, who confessed Wednesday that he did not write the music that made him famous.
Not only has Samuragochi, who says he has been almost completely deaf since age 35 because of a degenerative illness, enjoyed having concert music attributed to him heard around the world, but Japanese Olympic figure skater Daisuke Takahashi is also scheduled to use the Samuragochi-credited Sonatina for Violin in his short program in Sochi later this month.
It was the Olympic visibility that triggered an astonishing revelation Wednesday: Samuragochi suddenly announced that not only had he not written the Sonatina, but most of his music written in the past two decades was composed by someone else. Thursday, a 43-year-old composer in Tokyo named Takashi Niigaki stepped forward to say that he has been Samuragochi's ghostwriter since 1996. A composer also named Takashi Niigaki is credited as composer-in-residence for the celebrated Bach Collegium Japan and its Ensemble Genesis, though NPR has not yet been able to confirm that it is the same individual.
Adding to the general confusion were allegations of another fraud that Niigaki put forward during a 90-minute press conference he held in Tokyo Thursday: that maybe Samuragochi isn't deaf, either. Niigaki — who says he has been paid about 7 million yen (roughly $69,000) to write for Samuragochi — says that he has had regular conversations with Samuragochi, in which the other man listened to and commented upon his work, and said in the press conference that the purported deafness was "an act that he was performing to the outside world." Samuragochi's lawyers say, however, that they believe that he is indeed deaf.
Over the past two decades, Samuragochi had become a major human-interest story at home and abroad. In a 2001 Time magazine profile that trumped him as a "digital-age Beethoven," he was quoted as saying that his deafness had proved a "gift from God."
Niigaki said at his press conference that he had wanted to come clean earlier, but that Samuragochi threatened to commit suicide if he did so.
In the meantime, Samuragochi found commercial and critical success. His Symphony No. 1, "Hiroshima" became a best-selling album in Japan, and in 2013, the Japanese public broadcaster NHK aired a documentary about him called Melody of the Soul, in which he was shown meeting with survivors and relatives of people who perished in the 2011 tsunami. The "Hiroshima" piece in particular had become a pop culture touchstone during Japan's rebuilding efforts.
Samuragochi is signed to the Japanese label Nippon Columbia, which operates internationally as the Savoy Label Group. (Disclaimer: My husband, Joshua Sherman, was vice president of sales for SLG in the U.S. and directed A&R for Savoy Jazz/SLG until 2010.) After the revelations, Nippon Columbia released an initial statement saying that it was "surprised and extremely angry." Update: Nippon Columbia has since stopped distribution of Samuragochi's CDs, DVDs and downloads, and his publisher, Tokyo Hustle, has canceled the scheduled release of three more scores and retracted permissions for its existing "Samuragochi" catalog, saying that the copyright owner is "unknown."
The mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, has said that the city will have to retract the citizen's award it had given Samuragochi in 2008.
Although Samuragochi wasn't well-known in the U.S., music attributed to him did get performed by American ensembles, including this 2013 performance of Requiem Hiroshima by the acclaimed Young People's Chorus of New York City, directed by Francisco J. Núñez:
by Elizabeth Blair
Audio for this story from All Things Considered will be available at approximately 7:00 p.m. ET.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) presents the "Hero of Labour" award to conductor Valery Gergiev, head of the Mariinsky Theatre.
There are a lot of rumors, but officials of the Sochi Olympics are being tight-lipped about what's in store for the opening ceremonies. Among the artists expected to perform are leading classical musicians, a choir made up of a thousand children from all over Russia, and renowned conductor Valery Gergiev. President Vladimir Putin named Gergiev one of the International Ambassadors of the Sochi Olympics. He is a powerful force in the world of classical music, but he is also polarizing.
Gergiev is a formidable presence: tall, broad-shouldered and he often shows up for concerts uncombed and unshaven. He has strong ties to major orchestras throughout Europe and the U.S. including the London Symphony, New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. But Russia is where he has made his biggest impact.
In 1988, when Gergiev was in his mid-30s, he took the helm of the historic Kirov Theater, a jewel of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. The Mariinsky, as it's now called, has been home to Russia's greatest performing artists: Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Nureyev and Baryshnikov. In 1892, The Nutcracker received its world premiere there.
It's been said that Gergiev runs the Mariinsky like a tsar. It's also been said that the institution needed the ruthlessness of a tsar to survive. When Gergiev took over, the Soviet Union was collapsing, along with its funding of the arts.
"Gergiev discovered those funds were not going to last," says Allan Miller, who directed a documentary about Gergiev. "He took the orchestra around the world to give concerts in order to make money for the theater."
Gergiev helped raise the institution's profile around the world. The orchestra's 2001 recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was praised by critics as reinvigorating a piece that was so overplayed it had lost its ferocity. Music critic Ted Libbey was on the panel that named Gergiev's recording one of NPR's 50 essential classical albums.
"Gergiev turns back toward trying to evoke some of the brutality that is written into the music, that was designed to be part of the experience," Libbey says. "His guys just sail through this music. There's no question that they can play the notes but they go a little bit further."
Gergiev is an unstoppable promoter of Russian culture, championing young artists who've become international stars, like soprano Anna Netrebko. He's also revived lesser-known works such as Rimsky-Korsakov's The Invisible City of Kitezh and Sadko, and Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery and The Gambler.
To further his dreams for the Mariinsky, Gergiev uses his significant political connections. He has known President Vladimir Putin for years. Miller, whose documentary about Gergiev is called You Cannot Start Without Me: Valery Gergiev, Maestro, says the friendship between the two goes back to when Putin was mayor of St. Petersburg, where the Mariinsky is based.
"He says, 'Of course I know Putin. I know him very well.' He admires Putin for his taking over when things were chaotic in the '90s, authoritarian though that might have been," Miller says.
Gergiev was a vocal supporter of Putin in the last election and here's where Gergiev has infuriated human rights activists. Last fall a reporter for a Dutch newspaper asked Gergiev about Russia's anti-gay legislation which bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations." Gergiev was quoted as saying "In Russia, we do everything we can to protect children from pedophiles. This law is not about homosexuality, it targets pedophilia."
Shortly thereafter gay rights activists protested his concerts at The Met, shouting "Tchaikovsky was gay." There were also protests of his concerts at the Barbican Center in London, where gay activist Peter Tatchell says he surprised the audience.
"Dressed in the most stylish tuxedo I could find, I walked onto the stage while the orchestra was warming up and simply made a short statement criticizing Gergiev's support of the law," Tatchell says. "I was immediately pounced upon by security and eventually left of my own volition."
Tatchell says he's experienced violent discrimination in Russia first hand. In 2007 he was in Moscow to support efforts to hold a gay pride parade when he was beaten by neo-Nazis and then arrested.
"It's an affront to human dignity for anyone, including an esteemed Russian and international music artist, to align themselves with legislation and a regime that violates human rights," Tatchell says.
Critics of Gergiev's see a certain irony in his loyalty to Putin. Throughout his career the conductor has been devoted to the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer who suffered greatly under Joseph Stalin's repressive government. New Yorker critic Alex Ross praised one of Gergiev's recent performances of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony. But Ross also said he felt "psychological unease" at hearing Gergiev — a conductor who has made what he called "a pact with authority" — interpret the work of a composer who was terrorized by a dictator.
Valery Gergiev has made statements saying he is not anti-gay and that he has never discriminated against anyone in his entire career. In an interview that aired on CNN this week, he went a little further, saying: "I myself question very much why the country needed something like this law. And I didn't even read it. Honestly, I didn't have time. I only learned about this law when things started to happen that I heard about."
Gergiev also said he "can't imagine anyone in Russia wants to upset the world's community during the Sochi Olympics."
The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, incorrectly refers to Vladimir Putin as the mayor of St. Petersburg. Putin was first the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, but not mayor.
It's been said that Gergiev runs the Mariinsky like a tsar. It's also been said that the institution needed the ruthlessness of a tsar to survive. When Gergiev took over, the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse, along with its funding of the arts.
To further his dreams for the Mariinsky, Gergiev uses his significant political connections. He has known President Vladimir Putin for years. Miller, whose documentary about Gergiev is called You Cannot Start Without Me: Valery Gergiev, Maestro, says the friendship between the two goes back to when Putin was the first deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, where the Mariinsky is based.
Shortly thereafter gay rights activists protested his concerts at the Met, shouting "Tchaikovsky was gay." There were also protests of his concerts at the Barbican Centre in London, where gay activist Peter Tatchell says he surprised the audience.
Weekend Edition Saturday
Mieczyslaw Weinberg's opera The Passenger tells the story of an Auschwitz prisoner and a Nazi guard, whose lives continue to interweave after the the war.
Composer Dmitri Shostakovich called it a perfect masterpiece without ever having seen it performed. The Passenger, an opera about the Holocaust, was written nearly half a century ago, but was only given its first full performance just three years ago.
Now it's getting its U.S. premiere at the Houston Grand Opera. The opera is based on a story by a Holocaust survivor, with music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a composer who lost his entire family in the Nazi death camps.
Writer Zofia Posmysz, an Auschwitz survivor, was in Paris in 1959 when she feared she heard her former Nazi prison guard nearby. She was wrong. But that seed became this story, wherein her experience is reversed: On a 1950s cruise ship, a passenger — a former guard — thinks she sees her former prisoner.
The husband knows nothing of his wife's Nazi past. Scenes on the ship unfold on the white upper deck, Auschwitz sequences play out in the shadowy lower deck of the prison hell, where the same scene shifts back in time.
The action in The Passenger begins on the deck of a cruise ship, then ventures below deck as the characters' memories of the Holocaust surface.
Polish-born Weinberg wrote The Passenger in 1967. The young Jewish musician escaped Warsaw in 1939 and settled in Moscow, where he studied with Shostakovich. He wrote incessantly. David Pountney, who directs the Houston production of The Passenger, says Weinberg composed 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, ballets, film scores and seven operas.
"He was primarily writing to justify his survival," Pountney says. "I'm sure that's why he wrote such a massive amount of music. He never stopped, [as if to say] 'I've been saved. I'm the only one who survived. I have to use every minute to justify that.'"
Weinberg considered The Passenger his masterpiece. But a 1968 premiere was scrapped. Weinberg couldn't get anyone to produce it. Then, after the Soviet Union's collapse, music publishers in need of money began offering their works abroad. Pountney says they sent out leaflets describing pieces he'd never heard of.
"You know, it was one of those bits of paper on its way to the wastepaper basket, and luckily I said 'What? Friend of Shostakovich? Auschwitz? What is this?'" Pountney seized the opportunity and first presented a full production in 2010.
"We premiered it in Austria, so we're kind of performing it to grandchildren of perpetrators," he says. "And some of the grandchildren of the victims, of course."
Posmysz was in the audience, but Weinberg died in 1996 and never saw the work performed. Pountney contacted Patrick Summers, Houston Grand Opera's music director and conductor. The two had worked together before, and Summers agreed to stage the work even though it's not easy on audiences.
"It's unrelentingly dark," Summers says. "There's no point in trying to pretend it isn't."
The opera offers little relief, but it does what art's supposed to do, Summers says. It changes the way we see things and provides no easy answers.
"It asks us as an audience one thing," He says. "It just asks us, begs us, to remember."
The Passenger is performed Sunday. The same production moves to New York City in June.
by Mark Mobley
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Not every sports fan is glued to the Super Bowl. Sunday also brings Puppy Bowl X, the 10th iteration of the immensely successful Animal Planet program featuring playful pups and a beleaguered human referee. This year's new element is a fantasy game, in which each viewer may log in to a Facebook account and pick a trio of cuddly canines destined to dominate the dog-on-dog action.
In the first round, NPR Classical is honor-bound for obvious reasons to root for Bach, a 14-week-old male Bernedoodle (a cross between a Bernese Mountain Dog and a poodle). In the second, we selected Van Helsing, an 18-week-old basset hound — partially because we like "Dr. Van Helsing and Dracula" from Philip Glass' score to the Bela Lugosi film Dracula, as performed by the Kronos Quartet. Rounding out our team is Sparky, a 16-week-old Yorkshire terrier who shares a name with Charles "Sparky" Schulz, creator of Peanuts — and Schroeder!
Watching the Puppy Bowl? Have an opinion on how Bach is playing Sunday? Got any comments on the music in the other bowl game with humans? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter.
You love the music you love, but you'll love it even more if you listen closely.
Analysis will never trump feeling: The way a piece or a song moves us is ultimately what makes music lovers (addicts, really) come back for more. But the more you understand how composers and musicians manipulate the fundamental four elements of music — rhythm, melody, harmony and color — is a peek behind the curtain.
Before we go any further: this little cheat sheet comes with apologies to Aaron Copland, whose short and brilliant 1939 book What to Listen for in Music remains the ur-text, and from whose wealth of ideas I am stealing shamelessly. As fellow composer William Schuman rightly wrote in his introduction to the 1988 Copland reprint, "The uninitiated can gauge its significance by imagining a book by Rembrandt called What to Look for in Painting."
Obviously, a guide this isn't meant to replace a more thorough study and grounding (or, more to the point, basic music education in the schools). But our hope is that when you're approaching a piece of music either for the first time or revisiting an old favorite, you might ask yourself a few of these questions as a way of digging into what makes it tick.
1. Rhythm And Meter: Does the music move quickly, or slowly, or somewhere in between? Can you hear the meter? (That is, can you easily hear the downbeat? Does the music divide neatly into, for example, one-two-three-four or one-two-three over and over again?) Do certain rhythms pop up again and again? Where are the stressed accents? Do stresses pop up in unexpected places? Does the composer string together rhythms in interesting ways, or layer different rhythms in different ways on top of each other? And how does a particular performer or group play with a given rhythm? Or does the composer play with polyrhythms — layering rhythms on top of each other — like the way Steve Reich does in Drumming?
2. Melody. A catchy melody can be the make-or-break of music — and it's not just a matter of what the most important notes are, but where they go. Does a particular line contain a lot of notes, or just a few? How big is the range of pitches you hear — do they all cluster on low notes, for example, or mostly high, or do they go all over the place? Does it sound like all the notes in a melody could "fit" together on the same scale, or does the melody wander more widely? Is there a main melody that the composer returns to again and again or uses as a springboard, or are the ideas more diffused? Think of the insanely catchy melody to "La donna e mobile" from the opera Rigoletto: Verdi kept this famous aria secret (even from the singer) almost until the very hour of the opera's debut, for fear of a leak.
3. Harmony: This is what music sounds like "vertically," so to speak — not the melody or rhythms, which both move linearly, but the chords, or stacks of notes, that would exist if you froze any particular moment in a piece of music. Do you hear just one line of melody, or are there different voices or instruments weaving in and out on using different pitches from each other? If it's the latter case: do those lines sound close together in pitch or far apart? Do they move in the same direction as or away from each other (or some of both) --- and when they come to rest, how does it sound? When three or more pitches sound together at the same time (which is called a chord), what does that sound like? Do you feel like the music is rooted in a particular universe of pitches, or more like it's floating untethered? Take a listen to the Spem in Alium, a motet written by the 16th-century Thomas Tallis for voices singing 40 different lines simultaneously, for a sublime example of what's called counterpoint — how voices move against each other. Bach's very familiar chorales are an excellent opportunity to hear how beautifully he could use basic Western harmony.
4. Color and texture. Each instrument produces a different range of "colors" — the metallic brilliance of a flute, for example, sounds a whole lot different than the warmth of a female singer, though they have similar pitch ranges. And in an age where electronics hold such a central role, a composer can choose between a synth, an electric guitar, and a cello, for example — and each instrument would lend a very specific mood to the music. (And dropping in digital samples or loops draws in whole other worlds of references.) Or take, as another example, the very useful piano, with its handily wide range of 88 possible pitches: it's very much a melodic instrument, but can also be used quite percussively. How does the composer partner up instruments? Does she or he use very familiar combinations, like a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello), or a much more unusual array? A full orchestra is also a great means to show off the differences in color: think of Ravel's Bolero, in which the rhythm and melody never change — only the instrumentation does.
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