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Deceptive Cadence un-stuffs the world of classical music, which is both fusty and ferociously alive.
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The San Francisco Symphony's recording of two Beethovenian works by John Adams is one of our picks for 2015.

The San Francisco Symphony's recording of two Beethovenian works by John Adams is one of our picks for 2015.

Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Say what you will about the demise of the CD and the battles between downloads and streams, in 2015 the flow of classical music recordings seemed as full and rich as ever.

Listen to all of NPR Music's favorite songs of 2015.

Best Music Of 2015

Songs We Love 2015

Devising a list of just 10 was downright painful. We were forced to leave so many terrific albums in the wings, from Giya Kancheli's dark and lyrical Chiaroscuro to a stunning debut recital, "Héroïques," from gifted young American tenor Bryan Hymel.

Our list feels wide-ranging, as open to possibilities as classical music itself. Andrew Norman's recent and rigorously flamboyant orchestral work Play rubs elbows with maximalism from the 17th century in the form of Heinrich Biber's 54-part Missa Salisburgensis. And J.S. Bach, played elegantly by Piotr Anderszewski, sits beside Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a confident new composer from Iceland. With Verdi, Sondheim, John Adams and Dvorák, there's something here for most any musical appetite. Sit back and turn it up loud.—T.H.

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A scene from the opera Becoming Claus, composed and with a libretto by Mark Adamo.

A scene from the opera Becoming Claus, composed and with a libretto by Mark Adamo.

Karen Almond/Courtesy of Dallas Opera

It's that time of year when we start hearing admonitions to think about the true meaning of the season. And composer and librettist Mark Adamo is down with that. Best known for his acclaimed operatic adaptations of Little Women and Lysistrata, his latest is Becoming Santa Claus, a family-friendly Christmas work produced by Dallas Opera.

This was Adamo's assignment: Create a Christmas piece with the wit of his Lysistrata, according to Keith Cerny, general director and CEO of the Dallas Opera. "I was also looking for a chamber opera that had the appeal of the best Pixar films," Cerny explains, "where at one level they're for children, but in fact they can be enjoyed by any of us whatever our stage of life."

The commission appealed to Adamo. Raised a Catholic, the composer had already been toying with a holiday piece. But he did not want to recreate perhaps the best-known Christmas opera, Giancarlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, "which is wonderful," Adamo says, "but is a folk tale and rather dolorous."

Adamo told an audience of opera fans before the premiere he wanted to tackle the season's commercialism while weaving in the original Christmas message.

"And I thought if you could do that in some way, you know, in a kind of mythic, glamorous way," Adamo explained, "somehow use the character of Santa Claus to talk about, you know, the problem of 'Oh, it's the season of love, max out your Visa card,' that would be a show that I would want to see."

So Young Prince Claus is getting ready for his 13th birthday. His mother, the Queen, orders the elves to prepare the party.

"This setting would be perfect, were it not for that spot," she sings. "That silver is immaculate; this goblet is not. Let's concentrate, only hours to go."

Queen Sophine is determined to throw a big bash for her little boy. Grammy-nominated mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera is herself a young mother. Adamo wrote the part for her.

"Mark is a really wonderful writer," Rivers says, "and I was sending him emails saying, 'I don't know how you understand the mind of a mother so well since you're not one, but you do.' And he was always saying, 'Well, I have one.'" And I was like, oh, he gets it. He understands this feeling that you have for your child, that you want the best for them and that you sometimes make the wrong decisions, and that those are the ones that you learn from as a family."

What the audience learns is that young Claus's father hasn't been around much. So Mom spoils him, says Adamo: "There was simply the idea of Santa Claus as the original grasping 'What did you get me?' Christmas brat.'"

Queen Sophine promises young Claus that his three favorite uncles will be at the party. But they can't make it, so they send toys instead. They're off to Jerusalem with gold, frankincense and myrrh for the birth of a mysterious boy.

Adamo says Claus decides to get back at them. He orders his elves to create gifts a child could actually enjoy.

"The whole middle act of the piece is given over to the elves drafting these toys," Adamo says, "and the prince saying, 'No, they've got to be better, they've got to be more, more exciting' ... so you get in a certain way the sense that you're kind of thinking about the thing, as opposed to the gesture that the thing is supposed to represent."

But when they get to Jerusalem, Claus and the elves are too late. The baby, Claus' uncles — all gone. Young Claus, sung by tenor Jonathan Blalock, has an epiphany.

"May the shining things we bring him give his spirits a lift," Blalock sings. "If we can't be always present, we at least can give the gift ... and not just this year, but every year hereafter, not for one, every child in the world — rich kids, poor kids."

Adamo's boy Claus has grown into the character we know.

Bill Burnett writes for Opera Warhorses. He says Becoming Santa Claus is a sophisticated piece that works — mostly.

"It's not really a children's opera, as perhaps The Little Prince or even Amahl and the Night Visitors," Burnett says. "But it is an opera that serious students of music will find important and filled with wondrous, sophisticated stuff."

Christmas is complicated, says Adamo. We all know it's supposed to be about giving, not receiving: "I didn't want it to be just 'Oh, gifts are bad,'" he says. "Because that's not the way we experience it. I mean, there is a delight, even for adults in the new Apple whatever."

Adamo says if Becoming Santa Claus is going to work for audiences of any age, the opera has to be honest.

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Whispered and Revealed

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Purchase Featured Music

Song
Whispered and Revealed
Album
Holiday Harmonies: Songs of Christmas
Artist
Essential Voices USA
Label
Sono Luminus
Released
2015

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Nico Muhly's new holiday song is based on Longfellow's poem Snow-flakes.

Nico Muhly's new holiday song is based on Longfellow's poem Snow-flakes.

Matthew Murphy/Courtesy of the artist

Amid the ubiquitous din of annual chestnuts like "Jingle Bells" and "Let it Snow," you may be surprised to learn that people are actually writing new holiday songs. And as it turns out, some of them are pretty great.

Songs We Love.

Songs We Love

Whether young, prolific composer Nico Muhly's new song "Whispered and Revealed" will enter the holiday canon is yet to be seen. There's no doubt, however, as to its shimmering, wintery expression, especially in this vivid performance by Essential Voices USA, a New York-based choral outfit led by Judith Clurman. Clurman commissioned the piece for her album Holiday Harmonies, asking Muhly to write something easy enough for high school and community choruses to sing.

Snow-Flakes
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

Throughout his various choral works and operas, Muhly displays a keen ear for the human voice. He takes great care in setting the text, a poem published in 1863 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called Snow-flakes. Using a single harp to provide a churning pulse and the illusion of falling snow, the piece begins with an introduction — a repetition on the word "out" with voices floating gently downward from above. Suddenly, in one breathtaking moment, as the full chorus enters on the line "Out of the bosom of the Air / Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken," the song takes flight.

Longfellow's snowflakes might be pretty, wrapped in tidy rhyme schemes, but they also reveal the winter blues. Three stanzas are dressed in spacious, open vowels and troubled landscapes. Muhly responds by contrasting high and low registers, and by letting the blend of his voices bloom.

Still, for all its images of snow-draped fields and troubled hearts, "Whispered and Revealed" radiates a homey, fireside warmth. And isn't that what we want in a good holiday song — something evocative, comforting and little wistful, all in in the space of three minutes?

Holiday Harmonies is out now on Sono Luminus

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Composer Patrick Castillo leads the Third Sound ensemble in a Havana performance in November 2015.

Composer Patrick Castillo leads the Third Sound ensemble in a Havana performance in November 2015.

Anastasia Tsioulcas/NPR

Hear Selections From The ACF Concert

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When you think of Cuban music, contemporary classical most likely isn't the first — or possibly even fifth — genre that springs to mind. But a group of American composers and musicians couldn't resist an opportunity to travel to the island to present their own music and seek out their Cuban colleagues' work — and frankly, neither could I. We traveled together last month to the Havana Festival of Contemporary Music, for the event's 28th edition.

This American delegation of 10 composers and six instrumentalists was put together under the auspices of the Saint Paul, M.N.-based American Composers Forum. The Havana festival is a week-long series of concerts organized by UNEAC (La Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba), the country's official association for writers, artists and musicians, which is headed by composer and conductor Guido López-Gavilán.

PROGRAM (EXCERPTS):

Kai-Young Chan: Mieko (for flute and electronics)

Amadeus Regucera: Inexpressible (for flute, violin and cello)

Kati Agócs: Immutable Dreams: Movement II [Microconcerto in Memoriam György Ligeti] (for full ensemble)

Spencer Topel: Details on the Strasbourg Rosace (for full ensemble)

Libby Larsen: Dancing Solo: Movement IV, Flat Out (for solo clarinet)

Christopher Jones: A Crowd of Twisted Things (for violin and piano)

Ingrid Arauco: Fantasy Quartet (for clarinet, violin, cello and piano)

Michael Harrison: Radians Phase II (for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and sine waves)

Jeremy Gill: Paean, Epitaph and Dithyramb (for flute, cello and piano)

Third Sound:

Sooyun Kim, flute

Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet

Karen Kim, violin

Michael Nicolas, cello

Orion Weiss, piano

Patrick Castillo, composer and managing director

New York-based composer Patrick Castillo (who also serves as the vice chair of ACF's board of directors) attended this festival in Havana in 2014, when two of his pieces were performed as part of a program of music from the U.S. He was the one American composer who was able to travel down for the 2014 edition — just weeks before President Obama announced plans to begin normalizing relations with Cuba. "I was a delegation of one!" Castillo says.

While Castillo was in Havana in 2014, he says, López-Gavilán suggested that ACF and the Cuban festival create an ongoing relationship: "He said to me numerous times that he hoped that next year all of ACF's composers could come."

"I said, 'I don't think that you want all 2,000-plus composers to come down to Cuba!" Castillo recalls saying. But within that misunderstanding, an idea germinated — and quickly picked up speed.

Castillo was at that point putting together a chamber ensemble called Third Sound (with Sooyun Kim, flute; Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet; Karen Kim, violin; Michael Nicolas, cello; Orion Weiss, piano; and Castillo as composer and managing director) that could deftly handle new music as well as more canonical works. Smartly, the size and range of the group meant that Third Sound could bring a real variety of textures and sounds with them to Havana, from a movement from ACF president Libby Larsen's intimate Dancing Solo for clarinet to Michael Harrison's gargantuan-sounding piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and sine waves called Radians Phase II.

ACF put out a call in the spring for composers to submit scores that Third Sound could bring to the 2015 edition of the Havana festival, with the intention of having all 10 composers come along to Cuba this time around. The Americans would put on a concert Nov. 17 at the 18th-century Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís, right in the city's historic center.

The Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís in Havana.

The Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís in Havana.

Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

In many regards, a dialogue between U.S. and Cuban composers isn't new — it's a restoration of a much older exchange. In the early decades of the 20th century, Cuban composers like Amadeo Roldán and Alejandro García Caturla corresponded with American contemporaries, including Charles Ives and Henry Cowell. Cowell went to Havana to give performances in 1930; back in the States, he also published and performed Caturla's music, as well as giving concerts of Roldán's music. After George Gershwin traveled to Cuba in 1932, he wrote his Cuban Overture.

Conductor Leopold Stokowski and composer and critic Nicolas Slonimsky were also particular champions of Caturla; Slonimsky, in his inimitable fashion, wrote in an article for the Boston Evening Transcript of the Cuban arts community: "Young musicians in Cuba are much more alert to the possibilities of new music than their sterilized colleagues elsewhere. The Philharmonic Orchestra of Havana under Amadeo Roldán has performed more modern music, including modern Americans, than the Philharmonic of New York ever will."

Back in our own time, however, that flood of correspondence and communication has mostly dried up. ACF discovered that their American composer members had a real thirst to understand Cuba better: after putting out its invitation for submissions, the organization received more than 400 scores.

"When you pick 10 out of that many, it's not like the 10th-best score is light years better than the 11th-best," Castillo says. "There were easily 20, 30, 40 pieces that we would have been very happy to have represent new American music in this international setting."

The ones Third Sound selected formed a very complementary program, but also represented a wide diversity of aesthetics and backgrounds. The 10 composers came from all over the U.S., are at very different points in their careers and have varying degrees of public exposure — from students to a Pulitzer Prize winner, Jennifer Higdon. And 40 percent of the composers chosen were women.

"All of that was a happy accident," Castillo says. "We didn't ask for anonymous submissions. But we really went about it from a very purist point of view, choosing just the pieces we were most compelled by, and what we most wanted to present."

Before his first trip to Cuba, Castillo remembers, he was advised by a colleague who had traveled there numerous times that he should think about bringing scores and CDs — not just of his own work, but of other contemporary American composers as well. "The most recent American music that a lot of those guys down there have had access to," Castillo says his colleague told him, "is Copland."

"So I went there the first time with this fantasy," says Castillo, "that I was going to go down there like Prometheus, coming down to Cuba with Music for 18 Musicians, and set the scene on fire with things that they had never heard."

Flutist Sooyun Kim and violinist Karen Kim perform at their Havana concert in November 2015.

Flutist Sooyun Kim and violinist Karen Kim perform at their Havana concert in November 2015.

Anastasia Tsioulcas/NPR

"And that wasn't really true," he adds quickly. "The economic and social and cultural isolation has, it seems to me, prevented some things from getting in, but not everything from getting in. For example, I met a young Cuban composer, who must have been 16 or 17 years old, and he had written a piece for two flutes called Homenaje a Philip Glass (Homage to Philip Glass), which I thought was a fabulous piece of music that stands shoulder to shoulder of anything by Philip Glass or anybody else in the United States today. But he hasn't heard everything by all the American minimalists, I can say that with certainty."

But what could the American composers and musicians learn from their Cuban counterparts? "In both directions," Castillo says, "it's a tricky equation to talk about. The fact of the matter is that we have so much more access here than our colleagues in Cuba do. But the ensemble and I, and the composers too, were all very sensitive to not going in with the attitude of 'We're going to teach you how to do new music.'"

"What we saw was that in spite of not having access to, you know, strings, and reeds, and good instruments, and things like that," Castillo says, "our colleagues there have created music of such vitality, and such imagination and resourcefulness." The entire group was also asked to consider bringing items like strings, bridges, manuscript paper and office supplies along as gifts, because access to such essential goods is severely restricted due to the trade embargo that has been in place for more than 50 years.

None of the 10 composers selected to participate had visited Cuba before. And none knew much about the sound of Cuban contemporary classical music, since there is very little material available online or on recordings of works by composers living and working in Cuba today (with the exception of an internationally renowned figure like Leo Brouwer). So the musicians were heading to Cuba with a scant sense of what to expect — as well as a whole lot of anticipation.

One of the American composers was Amadeus Regucera from Oakland, Calif., who brought his dreamlike Inexpressible for flute, violin and cello. (A Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, Regucera was not the only Berkeleyite to go to Havana; the chair of UC Berkeley's music department, Cindy Cox, was also chosen for her piano trio called Wave I.)

Members of the group Rumba Morena performing in Havana, Cuba in November 2015.

Latitudes

Latitudes: Cuban Music Right Now

Regucera wasn't sure how his work would come across in Havana: "I had the feeling that the music I write would be a little strange, or at least received with a little bit of confusion, because it's received with a little bit of confusion in the States!" he says, smiling. "But I was wrong — the audience was very enthusiastic. And at the performance, I was sitting next to a young Cuban composer. Immediately after the piece, she turned to me, and started asking questions, gave me her card, and asked if I would stay in touch with her. At intermission, a group of composers came up to me, and began asking about my notation and if they could see my score."

Higdon, whose wildly whirling Smash ended the concert, says she found a lot of vitality — and a very strong influence of jazz — in the Cuban contemporary music she heard. "Nothing seemed to be too quiet or melancholy," she says. "I heard a lot of very active rhythms, and always a lot of movement."

"Rhythm would probably be their first priority, from what I've now heard," Higdon says. "There's also much more melody present than what you would find in a lot of American music right now. And it didn't sound to me like anyone used systems — they were writing pretty much in tonal schemes, in fairly traditional key changes and established forms."

What Higdon says she came away with was a deeper understanding of how music is such a vital part of daily life and its rhythms in Havana. "What I realized from staying not in a hotel, but in a private home, is that you can hear music playing all day and all night — rhumba, for example, and I heard someone playing beautiful classical guitar in a Spanish style yesterday — it's constant.

"So I realized that the composers who have grown up here may have access to music from outside this world, but the soundtrack of their every day, from their earliest infant days, has this kind of Latin rhythm thing going. For a composer, that infiltrates your brain and influences how you think about things."

That's an opinion shared by fellow American composer Spencer Topel, an assistant professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., whose luminescent Details on the Strasbourg Rosace for the full ensemble was included on the program.

Topel wondered before the ACF composers' concert how much he and his colleagues' aesthetic priorities diverged from those of the Cuban musicians. "I had sort of a premonition of this the day before, when I went to a concert of Cuban contemporary music," he says, "and so much of the music has these continuous rhythm sections. And you just look around Cuba — rhythm is everywhere. Movement is everywhere. And these things are so intrinsically tied together. And those rhythms are very intricate. And so my first thought was, 'Oh, boy. My piece has literally no big rhythm sections in it. They're going to just absolutely hate my music!'" he says, laughing.

"Here, these rhythms have very specific meanings," Topel continues. "I feel like I'm having some glimpse into some old part of European culture, when they knew that if they heard a bourrée, or a gigue, they would dance differently — they would suddenly switch. It's the same when Cubans suddenly hear a rhumba, for example; they dance differently. People start moving their bodies in a different way, with a different dance step, almost automatically. And that kind of connection between movement and rhythm, and rhythmic patterns, is really profound."

Higdon says that what this trip underscored to her was how much music and art is valued in Cuba — and how much music figures into Cuban life not just as entertainment, but as an intrinsic part of daily life profoundly bound to the country's long and multilayered heritage.

"Absolutely everyone here, it seems, whether they dance, or play an instrument," Higdon observes, "everyone is keyed into the native culture. Culture is so big here — I don't think you have pockets of people who aren't aware. It's such a shared experience, and it's kind of their DNA from such an early age. For example, with the [batá] drumming, the understanding of what each of the drumming patterns represents, in terms of the god [orisha] or who they're paying tribute to, and how the drumming patterns interlock, I found that utterly fascinating."

Higdon says her experiences in Havana offered an interesting counterpoint to her perceptions as an artist in her own country. "I don't know that we have such a huge cultural identity in the United States," she says. "We're much more diverse and spread out, and things might even change regionally. But in Cuba, they swim in it — a giant pool of cultural sound. And the other thing is they all celebrate the arts. It is so extraordinarily valued here, and it's very obvious that it is so. And there is so much joy in their music-making — I thought, 'Oh, this is what music-making is supposed to be — a very joyful experience.' I feel like in Cuba, people know that it's a really necessary part of life. Sometimes, I think we lose sight of that. It reminds me that it's a privilege to work in the arts."

You can hear most of the works presented by Third Sound at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Havana right here. And Third Sound plans to repeat the program in January in New York at St. Bartholomew's Church, and they are also contemplating recording all the pieces.

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Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, photographed at Ainola, his home outside Helsinki, in the 1940s.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, photographed at Ainola, his home outside Helsinki, in the 1940s.

Santeri Levas/Finnish Museum of Photography

Take A Tour Of Sibelius' Symphonies

Jean Sibelius, born 150 years ago on Dec. 8, 1865, was the first Finnish composer to reach an international audience, but his popularity began at home. In the late 1890s, Finland was a part of the Russian empire and its people were striving for independence. Sibelius, who would struggle with alcoholism and loneliness, found a way to express their frustrations and hopes through patriotic pieces like Finlandia and less obviously in his seven symphonies.

Sibelius' stature outside Finland swayed severely during the composer's long life (he died in 1957 at age 91). In 1940, critic and composer Virgil Thomson, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, called the Second Symphony "vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description," while conductors in England and America clamored to perform Sibelius' music.

Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote six exuberant symphonies.

Deceptive Cadence

Evenly Odd: Carl Nielsen's Distinctive Symphonies

Today, Sibelius provokes far less critical dissention. Michael Steinberg, author of the book The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, counted himself among the composer's legion of fans.

"He is one of the great symphonists," Steinberg, who died in 2009, told NPR seven years earlier. "And 'great' is a word I'm inclined to be fairly stingy with. I am so moved by the strength of the vision, the individuality of the vision. Here is an unmistakable voice that says, in virtually every phrase, 'Jean Sibelius was here.'"

Steinberg sat down to talk with NPR about Sibelius and his seven symphonies (an Eighth was composed but mysteriously disappeared). The audio excerpts that follow here are doubly satisfying — not only to recall Steinberg's enlightening yet down-to-earth way of explaining music, but also to hear the sounds of a composer whose symphonies evoke the great forests and fables of Finland and adventures far beyond and deep within.

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Organist Cameron Carpenter is a composer and performer who plays everything from Bach to pop.

Organist Cameron Carpenter is a composer and performer who plays everything from Bach to pop.

Heiko Laschitzki/Courtesy of the artist Cameron Carpenter's new album, If You Could Read My Mind, comes out Aug. 26.

First Listen

Review: Cameron Carpenter, 'If You Could Read My Mind'

Cameron Carpenter plays the organ in a way you'll rarely hear in church. He travels with his instrument on a huge truck, and it takes a small team to set it up in concert halls around the world. A virtuoso composer and performer who plays everything from Bach to pop, not to mention the first organist ever to be Grammy-nominated for a solo album, Carpenter says his connection to the instrument goes back even further than his interest in music.

"I found the instrument visually compelling. I was home-schooled growing up in Pennsylvania; I was never in church. I rather treasure that aspect of my view on the organ because I've been able to see it for the secular and theatrical instrument that it is," he says.

"The irascibility of the organ is such that, in order to be able to do anything at all with it, you have to have an incredible — I would say it's somehow beyond dedication. It amounts to a kind of obsession, at least for me, with this machine that attracts me as much as an object of pure mathematics as a musical instrument. It is one of the few things that is both."

Carpenter took a moment away from his current tour to speak with Scott Simon at NPR's studios in Washington, D.C. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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Listen to the Story

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Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star in Youth as the fictional composer Fred Ballinger and his filmmaker friend Mick Boyle.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star in Youth as the fictional composer Fred Ballinger and his filmmaker friend Mick Boyle.

Gianni Fiorito/Fox Searchlight

In the new movie Youth, an elderly, retired composer-conductor is called upon to conduct for the first time in years. He's an Englishman named Fred Ballinger — and the request is from Queen Elizabeth II. It seems Ballinger's composition Simple Songs, written when he was a much younger man, is the only thing the Queen's husband, Prince Phillip, will listen to.

That premise necessarily makes a few demands of the film. Someone had to play Ballinger convincingly, which Michael Caine does. More importantly, though, someone had to compose a piece of music that could plausibly account for Prince Phillip's fictitious fondness, and for Ballinger's fictitious fame. That job was handed to David Lang.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about the curious task of writing music fit for royalty, from the perspective of an artist well past his glory days. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

Robert Siegel: Tell me about "Simple Song #3," the composition at the heart of the story. Was this written after you saw or read the movie, or did you have it in the drawer all along?

Composer David Lang

Composer David Lang

Axel Dupeux/Courtesy of the artist

David Lang: No, I wrote it specifically for this film. But the really exciting thing about it was that, because this movie is about a composer, [director] Paolo Sorrentino had the idea that the music should play a huge role — so he came to me before the script was really even finished. We would have these conversations about what music could mean in a movie, how music could be stretched out through the length of the entire movie to show the development of a person and his relationship to his own work, and his past, and his love.

For you, then, was this a case of composing in character, trying to understand Fred Ballinger? Or is this the same piece that you would have composed if it were all your own?

I sort of looked at it like an opera, actually. Sometimes when you write an opera, you end up having to put yourself in the heads of characters who do things other than what you do. When Verdi writes about an evil person, he's not saying, "I'm an evil person." He's trying to project into that so he can figure out how to make that evil person the most believable evil person possible.

And so, I had to sort of project myself into that person. I had to imagine what his emotional story was. And I could imagine that he is conflicted — about remembering what love meant to him when he was young and he wrote this song, and what love means to him now, when he's an old man and his wife is no longer with him. I wanted a song that could be capable of giving off that kind of emotional range.

There's a scene in the movie in which Fred Ballinger, who gave up composing and conducting music many years ago, is in the Swiss countryside. He hears cows and cowbells and the sound of birds taking flight — and he actually starts conducting. Tell me about composing this piece of music, which will come to be called the "Wood Symphony."

This was so much fun to compose, I have to say. The whole idea was, he goes out into the forest and looks around, and using his conductorial skills, he points at the cows and tells them to be silent — and then he brings them into this beautiful composition, which is just in his head. It's a very funny scene, but it's also very touching, because it's the first moment where you actually see him being able to be musical with himself.

Is this the way a composer hears the world? Do you hear the music in everyday sounds?

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I think so. I think we use music to understand where we are. And also, I think we think of our emotional lives musically. We think that the way to access the parts of ourselves which are the most true to who we are is with music. We use music to get to ourselves. So, this was a little window of a way to show Michael Caine trying to pay attention to himself.

You had to write "Simple Song #3," but someone else had to perform it. Who are we hearing in the score?

One of the things that I had discussions about with Paolo from the very beginning was who this man should work with. You know, he's supposed to be a very famous composer and conductor, so he needs to be a world class musician — and his collaborators need to be world class musicians as well. So, the singer who sings this song is the international opera star Sumi Jo. The violinist who plays the solo is Viktoria Mullova, who's an amazing virtuoso. And the orchestra is the BBC Concert Orchestra, which is one of the great orchestras in England. It really seemed like all of these people were up to the level that the character was supposed to be.

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Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen has won this year's Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for his song cycle let me tell you. It's his first vocal work.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen has won this year's Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for his song cycle let me tell you. It's his first vocal work.

Lars Skaaning/Courtesy of the artist

A 30-minute song cycle for soprano and orchestra called let me tell you, by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, has been named the winner of the 2016 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The prize, which includes $100,000, was slated to be announced Nov. 30 by the University of Louisville, which sponsors the annual award. But the after the classical music website Musical America accidentally leaked the information, the official statement was released Tuesday.

Abrahamsen, 62, collaborated with author and music critic Paul Griffiths, who wrote the texts for the piece based on his own short novel called let me tell you. Griffiths started with the 480 or so words allotted to the character Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet, then reworked them in various combinations to reveal a contemporary Ophelia eager to tell her own story. "My words may be poor but they will have to do," she says near the beginning of the work.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts let me tell you with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in March 2014.

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"The vocal lines exquisitely mirror Griffiths' fragile texts of the doomed Ophelia," said Mark Satterwhite, director of the Grawemeyer Award. "The orchestra is a partner rather than mere accompanist and the composer draws a huge array of colors from the orchestra, delicate and shimmering more often than not, but occasionally in fuller force."

Abrahamsen, a native of Copenhagen, began writing music at an early age, publishing pieces when he was 16. By age 30 he already had an orchestral work commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, where he now teaches. Among his teachers were Per Nørgård and György Ligeti (a Grawemeyer winner in 1986).

Abrahamsen dabbled with writing vocal music back in the 1970s, but says that let me tell you is his first vocal piece, and something of a breakthrough for him.

"My music has always been full of pictures and feelings," he said by phone from his home in Kongens Lyngby, near Copenhagen. "But now these pictures come out more with text and therefore somehow there has been some kind of step [forward] in this piece, which I understood when I wrote it."

One of the keys to the success of let me tell you is soprano Barbara Hannigan, for whom it was written. A fearless champion of new music, Hannigan has premiered some 80 pieces and was recently praised for her performances in Written on Skin, an opera by George Benjamin that received its U.S. stage premiere at this summer's Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. At one point in the conception of let me tell you, she gave Abrahamsen a crash course on the history of vocal music, singing for him excerpts of Mozart, Mahler and Schoenberg, and instructing him in the finer points of her silvery, flexible voice.

It was also Hannigan who asked the Berlin Philharmonic if they wanted to commission the work. That orchestra, led by Andris Nelsons, gave the piece its world premiere Dec. 20, 2013.

For Abrahamsen, winning the award is a dream come true. "I remember the first time I heard about the award and heard that Lutoslawski and Ligeti and others who won," he says. "I knew it was, and still is, a very prestigious prize. So when I heard that I had received it, I became very honored and very happy."

The piece will be heard first in the U.S. in performances by Hannigan, the Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst in Cleveland and New York in January. A recording will be released Jan. 8 on the Winter & Winter label, and Boston Symphony Orchestra performances with Hannigan and Nelsons follow in February.

"I have the feeling that in this piece I have made something which is perhaps more open but still full of mystery, and, for me, what I'm searching for," Abrahamsen says. "When I did the piece I felt everything came into its right place."

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Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman in 2009, playing his Stradivarius during a rehearsal with musicians from the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra in Caracas, Venezuela.

Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman in 2009, playing his Stradivarius during a rehearsal with musicians from the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra in Caracas, Venezuela.

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On a long drive, Itzhak Perlman will sometimes listen to classical music on the radio and try to guess who's playing.

"There is always a question mark," he says. "If it's good, boy, I hope it's me. If it's bad, I hope it's not me."

Sometimes it's hard to be sure: Perlman has played so much, for so long, and says he's still learning, even at 70. This week, the great violinist will be honored by President Obama with the Medal of Freedom, a milestone in the life of a naturalized American citizen. Perlman grew up in the 1940s and '50s in Tel Aviv, then a burgeoning young city being built in the brand-new country of Israel.

Itzhak Perlman, who turns 70 on Monday, has been playing the violin for 67 years.

Deceptive Cadence

Itzhak Perlman: Charting A Charismatic Career

"I would see them make cement blocks," Perlman tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "They would mix the cement and so on, and they would put it in little things that would make it a block that they would use in the buildings. So I actually knew how buildings were being built from the beginning. That was very exciting. And another excuse not to practice."

Though as a child he hated practicing and contracted polio, Perlman developed his talent early. At 13, he was discovered by a giant of American TV: Ed Sullivan, who featured Perlman on his show more than once.

"He wanted to have a show made out of just Israeli acts. I made the finals, and I was in the cute little boy category, I guess," Perlman says. "When you live in a small country such as Israel, the dream of any musician is to go abroad. All I thought was that it was the most exciting thing in my life — to go out to the States."

Perlman's work was recently compiled in a 77-CD box set, but even that massive collection doesn't cover his entire career. And if you've kept up to date on viral videos lately, you may have spotted him conjuring music from a certain kitchen appliance.

"A lot of people ask me, 'What is your goal now that you have done everything?' And I always say that my goal is to not be bored by what I do," Perlman says. "The only way that I cannot be bored by what I do is if I play something and it's all new to me."

Asked if his understanding of the violin has changed since his early days, he says it's not the instrument that really matters.

"I think that I was pretty advanced as far as, technically, what makes it work — so I don't think that right now you can say I know much more about the instrument than I did when I was 20," he says. "I think the important thing was knowing how to play the music, how to do the phrasing, how to be a musician. That thing has evolved with me."

Itzhak Perlman: I'm Not On The Stage To Walk, I'm On It To Play

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Steve Inskeep continues his conversation with Itzhak Perlman, who was 13 when he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. When he was four, Perlman contracted polio and has used crutches since.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And earlier this week, we heard from one of the world's most celebrated classical musicians. Itzhak Perlman was just 13 when he performed on the "Ed Sullivan Show" in 1958. And he says he's still getting better.

ITZHAK PERLMAN: It's almost like an X-ray listening device that I have where I can actually say, I'm going to express this phrase in a particular way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERLMAN: It's like an illumination that I feel when I play a particular phrase. To simplify it, I hear better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This morning, we're going to focus on a different aspect of Itzhak Perlman's life. When he was 4 years old, he contracted polio. He has used crutches ever since. And he told our Steve Inskeep that fact does not really have anything to do with his performances.

PERLMAN: Right now I don't walk on stage unless I'm playing with a orchestra. But when I play a recital, I'm sort of on a scooter, and I just scoot very quickly on stage, and they're saying, wow, look at this. He's so fast. But that I don't think is a problem. I can't walk very well, but I'm not onstage to do walking. I'm on the stage to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We were pondering whether it made any difference to you that a soloist would typically stand, but of course, you do not.

PERLMAN: Believe me. I can tell you that many soloists probably wish they could sit.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

PERLMAN: You have to stand there for, like, two hours and play a recital, you know. Maybe somebody has flat feet or something, I don't know. When you think about violinists, the majority playing sit down.

INSKEEP: Let me challenge you to answer what's surely an unanswerable question. Would you have been the same musician that you are had you not been stricken with polio at a very young age?

PERLMAN: I think yes. You know, a lot of people like to think that polio was a inspiration in what I do. I think that music has to do with what kind of passion do you have.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERLMAN: If I was destined to be a musician, it would have happened.

INSKEEP: Oh, I wondered about it a little differently. I wondered if it was possible that polio limited some of your options and therefore made it more likely that you would grab this option.

PERLMAN: That could be, but that had to do probably with my parents. You know, maybe they felt that it would be a very good thing for me to do something in music because soccer was out of the question or basketball.

INSKEEP: Did they ever have that conversation with you, or was that just kind of implied?

PERLMAN: No, no, no, it was very natural. There was no question about, oh, you can't do this. You have to do that. It was like, you decide to be a musician, you have to put in the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: I'm impressed to hear this story because I think you're telling me that people expected no less of you because you couldn't walk.

PERLMAN: Well, I don't know if that's the case, you know, because when it was time to have a career, then people had questions. They had to prove that the quality of what I had to offer was of the highest level.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: I've been backstage at a few performance halls. Some of them are quite old. They have lots of steps. Have you ever arrived at a performance and had great difficulty just getting where you needed to go?

PERLMAN: Absolutely. You know, I know all the garbage elevators and a lot of halls. They're a lot of fun (laughter).

INSKEEP: You see everything a little differently than anybody else who performs there, I guess.

PERLMAN: What upsets me is that when I go into a place where it's fairly new and then there's a problem. But not that - a lot of people say, oh, this is not accessible because it's old. Oh, really? That means that in olden days, there were no people with disabilities. It's silly. The other day, I went to a very famous hotel here in New York, and it was disgusting. I went to a wedding, and I couldn't get to the wedding because there was stairs, so I had to go through the kitchen. And there was steps all over the place.

INSKEEP: In that situation, do you call attention?

PERLMAN: I complain.

INSKEEP: I mean, you're Itzhak Perlman. They listen to you, I would think.

PERLMAN: At the moment, yes.

(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Our Steve Inskeep talking with the violinist Itzhak Perlman. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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Soloman Howard performs as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton's Appomattox.

Soloman Howard performs as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton's Appomattox.

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When the opera Appomattox premiered in 2007, it put on stage a piece of history that was more than 140 years old.

But creators Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton recently decided the story wasn't over.

When the Washington National Opera wanted to stage the opera, Glass said it needed a rewrite — to reflect what's happened in the U.S. since the premiere.

"In the last seven or eight years there have been profound and really horrific changes in the way this country understands itself," Glass says.

The original opera was a collaboration between two lauded creators. Glass is one of this country's best-known living composers; Hampton, the librettist, won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons.

As Appomattox's title suggests, it's about the end of the Civil War and what followed. But nearly 10 years after creating the opera, Glass and Hampton decided it needed a new focus.

This weekend, a revised and updated version of the opera is premiering at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Glass says his original inspiration came from growing-up in a segregated Baltimore and taking class trips to Gettysburg, to learn about the Civil War.

"In my mind, the great American story is the Civil War," he says. "It's something that was all around when we grew up. It didn't really matter which community you were from. It was something that we knew about."

The original version of Glass' opera focused on the end of the war and the attempts to address the underlying issue of slavery. But nearly 10 years later, the revised version splits the opera's two acts into the struggle for peace and the fight to pass the Voting Rights Act a century later.

"Basically what we did is we took the two acts that were composed ... and made it into Act One, which was 1865, and made it Act Two 1965," he says. "That was not a separation we had imagined in the first production, and then by doing it that way we began to see immediately the symmetries and the differences."

While the Voting Rights Act was passed 50 years ago, librettist Christopher Hampton says recent efforts to undermine it led him to revisit the story — first in a play and now the revised opera.

"Some of the pieces that you work on, some of the plays that you write won't leave you alone, because the subject just nags at the back of your head," Hampton says. "But there are other things that keep developing as the situation keeps developing in the world."

As Hampton was rewriting the opera in 2010, a former Alabama state trooper who killed a voting rights activist in 1964 plead guilty to manslaughter charges.

"The state trooper who had shot dead Jimmie Lee Jackson had just been arrested ... 45 years after it happened and sentenced to six months in jail," he says.

The killing of Jimmy Lee Jackson sparked the pivotal marches from Selma to Montgomery, so Hampton and Glass made the ballad central to the second act.

Soloman Howard, the bass who sings the roles of Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Appomattox, says that 50 years later attitudes towards police brutality are changing.

"In the actual opera, we talk about the fact that police officers were killing and getting away with — 'self-defense' is always what's been used or being used," he says. "Today there is question."

Glass says the world was changing while they were working on the piece, and they wanted to give voice to those questions in the opera.

"The piece is really art imitating life in the biggest way it possibly can," he says.

For his part, Howard says he wants audiences who see the revised Appomattox to think about their role in American history.

"Life encompasses everyone," he says, "and to think about humanity, think about equality, think about us coming more together and achieving goals that should have been achieved long ago. Our work is not done."

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