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Deceptive Cadence
Deceptive Cadence un-stuffs the world of classical music, which is both fusty and ferociously alive.
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Masters And Disasters: The Met Opera Quiz

Hojotoho! How much Metropolitan Opera trivia do you know?

Hojotoho! How much Metropolitan Opera trivia do you know?

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Now that the embattled Metropolitan Opera has surmounted most of its labor squabbles, it's time to take a break from reading about the rancorous negotiations. See how many of these nerdworthy Met questions you can answer. Score high and bellow out your best Wagnerian "Hojotoho!" Score low and start learning the "Simpleton's aria" from Boris Godunov.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
29 days ago | |
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Met Opera Tentatively Settles With 2 Major Unions

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2 min 48 sec   The Metropolitan Opera has settled labor contracts with two of its largest unions.

The Metropolitan Opera has settled labor contracts with two of its largest unions.

Jonathan Ticler/Metropolitan Opera

A labor crisis threatening to shut down New York's Metropolitan Opera — the largest opera house in the world — appears to have been averted. Two of the major unions announced a tentative settlement this morning. While agreements with 10 additional unions need to be reached by Tuesday night, this represents a major turning point in a bitter dispute.

Members of the American Guild of Musical Artists and the American Federation of Musicians, two of the unions embroiled in contract negotiations with Metropolitan Opera management, rally this morning at Dante Park across from Lincoln Center.

Deceptive Cadence

Meet The Cast Of The Met Opera's Labor Drama

A worker unveils posters Tuesday for the coming season of New York's Metropolitan Opera. The Met's fall schedule could be in jeopardy if failed labor negotiations result in a lockout Friday.

Deceptive Cadence

On The Eve Of A Possible Lockout, Met Opera Talks Remain Contentious

The Met's labor problems have played out, for the most part, in the press, with acrimonious statements from both management and unions substituting for actual bargaining sessions. After multiple deadlines came and went over the last several weeks, members of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra, and the American Guild of Musical Artists, or AGMA, which represents the singers and dancers, bargained with the Met through the night and emerged this morning with tentative deals. A federal mediator made the announcement at 6:15 a.m. in a press release.

Musicians union president Tino Gagliardi says while the new contract asks members to take salary cuts, they are far less than the original proposal of 16 or 17 percent. "It's still a concessionary agreement," Gagliardi says. "I think there was a recognition that there was a problem at the Met. So the reductions are significantly smaller than what was originally asked for."

The Met's budget has ballooned in the last several years, while its income has declined. AGMA president Alan Gordon says the new four-year contracts — which need to be ratified by union members — ask for what they term "an equality of sacrifice."

"Both the employees — the performers — and the Met made equal concessions," Gordon says. "The Met has savings in employee labor costs and has to match those savings, dollar for dollar, with savings in its non-labor costs."

An independent financial consultant will provide oversight of the Met's spending, which is unprecedented.

"What we were able to accomplish is actually to negotiate contractual terms that require more transparency and oversight of the financial situation at the Met," Gagliardi says.

The Met's management, which is now in negotiation with the stagehands and nine other unions, declined to comment on the agreements, but stated that rehearsals and pre-season preparations are going on as scheduled.

Gordon says there's a palpable sense of relief now that a tentative deal has been reached. "There's also a hope among all our members," he says, "that whatever animosity existed in the past can be overcome and they can go and just produce beautiful music."

And now, it's become a much better bet that the season opener, a new production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, will take place Sept. 22.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
31 days ago | |
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Centenarian Soprano Licia Albanese Dies

Soprano Licia Albanese in an undated photo, posing as Violetta in Verdi's La traviata.

Soprano Licia Albanese in an undated photo, posing as Violetta in Verdi's La traviata.

Sedge LeBlang/courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Italian-American lyric soprano Licia Albanese, known for her deeply felt character portrayals, died Friday at her home in New York, her son, Joseph Gimma, told NPR Music Saturday. She was 105 years old.

Born in the Italian city of Bari along the Adriatic Sea, she became an American citizen in 1945. She began her professional career in 1935 at Milan's Teatro Lirico, where she stepped in as an emergency replacement in the middle of a performance of Puccini's Madame Butterfly as Cio-Cio San, the title character. This soon became a signature role, and was the one in which she debuted at New York's Metropolitan Opera in February 1940.

Of that first Met appearance, New York Times critic Olin Downes wrote: "She quickly won the audience's approval by the freshness of her feeling, the interest of detail in her performance and the prevailing eloquence of her song. It need not be claimed that the voice is a great one, but it has beauty and sensuous color, and is employed with interpretive resource."

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Throughout the peak of her career, Albanese was closely identified with the Met, where she sang more than 400 performances over the course of 26 years, and where she still holds the house record for most appearances — 87 — as Violetta in Verdi's La traviata.

Albanese was also something of a technological pioneer. She sang an aria from Bizet's Carmen in the Met's first telecast, a concert in an NBC studio at Rockefeller Center in March 1940. She also appeared in the first live telecast from the Metropolitan Opera House in November 1948: Verdi's Otello with tenor Ramon Vinay, baritone Leonard Warren and conductor Fritz Busch on ABC. New York Sun critic Irving Kolodin praised her performance on that occasion as displaying "real skill in shaping a vocal line, and the talent (by no means common among prima donni) for arousing the sympathy of an audience. ... Her 'Willow Song' was an uncommon piece of vocal art."

Albanese's fame was not limited to her presence on the Met roster. She performed for 20 seasons at the San Francisco Opera, and sang both Violetta in La traviata and Mimì in Puccini's La bohème in Toscanini's iconic 1940's NBC broadcasts, later issued on RCA Victor. For the same label, she also recorded Carmen with mezzo Risë Stevens (who died in March 2013 at 99), tenor Jan Peerce and conductor Fritz Reiner; and Puccini's Manon Lescaut with tenor Jussi Bjorling, baritone Robert Merrill and conductor Jonel Perlea.

Albanese taught at Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music and Marymount Manhattan College, and in 1974 founded the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation to support young singers. Past winners of the foundation's annual competition include sopranos Angela Meade and Latonia Moore, mezzo Sasha Cooke and tenors Stephen Costello and Matthew Polenzani.

In 1995, Albanese was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. "She had the rare ability to combine her great talent as a singer with equal talent as an actress," Clinton said in a ceremony on the White House lawn. "It was once said that Licia Albanese had the two qualities which all great artists have, simplicity and sincerity."

Her husband was Joseph A. Gimma, an investment banker and former chairman of the New York County Republican Committee and the New York State Racing Commission. While he was also born in Bari, they met in Manhattan in 1940 and were married from 1945 until his death in 1990.

Her son said a wake will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in New York. The burial service is private, but plans are underway for a mid-September memorial Mass at St. Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic Church in New York.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
1 month ago | |
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Soul-Searching Music From A Serene Desert Monastery

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northern New Mexico inspired Robert Kyr to compose the music on his new album of choral works.

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northern New Mexico inspired Robert Kyr to compose the music on his new album of choral works.

Karen Kuehn for NPR

Inspiration can come from unlikely places. For composer Robert Kyr, the silence of a desert monastery is key to the radiant music on his new disc of recent choral works performed by the vocal ensemble Conspirare and its director Craig Hella Johnson.

Kyr travels frequently to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, in northern New Mexico, from his home in Eugene, Ore., where he teaches composition at the University of Oregon. Living among the monastery's Benedictine monks, Kyr hikes along the winding Chama River by day and composes music in a bare-walled room at night.

The story behind the music on this album was told in a series of radio, video and online features reported by NPR's John Burnett, who first met the composer by chance, deep in the New Mexico desert, on a snowy New Year's Eve. Burnett visited Kyr at the monastery, tracing the journey of Songs of the Soul, a 47-minute cantata, from inception to its 2011 premiere in Austin, Texas. Now another chapter in the story unfolds as a recording of Songs of the Soul and its companion cantata The Cloud of Unknowing have been released.

Robert Kyr

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Discovering A Composer In The Desert And Mercy At A Monastery

Composer Robert Kyr at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert

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Robert Kyr's 'Songs' From A Desert Monastery

Members of the choral group Conspirare rehearse for the concert series

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Robert Kyr And His Singers Cross The Finish Line

The album opens with The Singer's Ode, an a cappella paean to the humbling power of music with a text written by Kyr himself. The cantatas traverse a more spiritual landscape, probing the complicated spaces between human and divine love, with texts from 16th century Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross. Kyr said in an email that he composed the two cantatas in the kind of solitude similar to the monastic context both saints lived in. "It was deeply inspiring for me," he said.

Kyr's music is slow-moving and contemplative yet full of life and subtle touches. He varies the textures with an effective mix of chorus, lightly scored orchestration (played by the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra) and solo turns and duets between choristers soprano Estelí Gomez and baritone David Farwig. Nowhere is their tone more yearning and tender than in "Beseeching" (from Cloud of Unknowing) as the voices rise and fall, entwined in a gorgeous melody.

Hear the Music

Robert Kyr: Choral Works HM

'Transcending: And Love Remains' (From Songs of the Soul)

  • Artist: Conspirare
  • Album: Choral Works
  • Song: Transcending: And Love Remains

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Song
Transcending: And Love Remains
Album
Choral Works
Artist
Conspirare
Label
Harmonia Mundi
Released
2014

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Songs of the Soul follows the soul's journey from its most "despairing and earthbound," Kyr says, to its most joyful and transcendent. This music sounds both timeless and contemporary, and harks back to the florid style of J.S. Bach and earlier.

The seven-segment cantata builds slowly, colored at first by low men's voices in "Descending: From the Abyss." It continues through "Hoping: Toward Dawn," "Transforming: Beloved into Lover" and finally "Transcending: And Love Remains." Near the very end, Conspirare splits into four choirs to bring a gleaming ecstasy to the text from 1 Corinthians 13, finishing with the phrase, "but the greatest of these is love." The final bars take the choir even higher, singing the vowel sound "ah," ultimately transcending language itself.

The northern New Mexico desert might be a serene and silent place, but for Kyr it resounds in an album of sublime music, superbly sung.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
1 month ago | |
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Read These While They're Still Free

Pianist Helene Grimaud, the subject of a 2011 New Yorker profile.

Pianist Helene Grimaud, the subject of a 2011 New Yorker profile.

Mat Hennek/Courtesy of the artist

Last month, The New Yorker announced that it was teasing a new "freemium" version of its website (which launches this fall) with an alluring proposition. All of its most recent pieces, plus the full archives back to 2007 and some even older selections, are free for the rest of the summer.

So we took this opportunity to dig up some delicious classical music-minded pieces from the magazine's archives. They're perfect long reads for a lazy August afternoon.

  • David Remnick on Lang Lang. The magazine's editor in chief published this profile of the world's most popular pianist in 2008, on the cusp of the Beijng Olympics. Remnick pairs astute observations about how the pianist was groomed for success ("Lang Lang is no athlete — he is as sedentary as a veal calf in a dark shed") with thoughts on the cultural context that aided his rise to superstardom: "Lang Lang is a superb, evolving musician, but he does not earn the money he does because he is better than, say, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, or, in truth, a dozen others. He earns it because of his shiny novelty and flair, and, perhaps especially, because he is an avatar of the Chinese ascendance."
  • Jeremy Eichler on Christian Tetzlaff. The Boston Globe critic's 2012 profile delves into the attention the German violinist has paid to 20th-century concertos (Schoenberg and Ligeti in particular), but Eichler spends even more space on Tetzlaff's semi-mystical approach to music making: "Since the time of Paganini, violin virtuosos have tried to overwhelm audiences with feats of agility. Tetzlaff is after something different. A character actor in a field of matinée idols, he prefers to disappear into the sound world he creates onstage. 'You become the thing,' he says. 'Or that's the hope.' The Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, with whom Tetzlaff has worked for more than two decades, says, "What always strikes me when I hear him playing, and when I work with him myself, is that it's not about the violin. It's about music being realized, and abstraction becoming reality, through the violin. He happens to play it extremely well, but that's not the point."
  • Alex Ross on Joyce DiDonato. The magazine's endlessly erudite classical critic occasionally brings his trenchant observations to pieces outside the musical sphere, but also to character portraits as well. A prime example is this 2013 profile of mezzo Joyce DiDonato, in which Ross sketches out her playful personality in a few quick strokes: "Her conversation is mercurial, with personae flitting in and out: the Country Gal ('Ahm not soundin' very erudite today'), the Airy Diva ('How glad I am that we had these few stolen moments'), the Young Person ('Um, oh, my God, Rossini is, like, amazing?'). She is ambitious, impatient with routine, and unintimidated by conductors and directors who condescend to her."
  • D. T. Max on Hélène Grimaud. All too frequently, this French pianist is doted on in the media as a wolf-obsessed Manic Pixie Dream Girl for the Carnegie Hall set. But Max, a New Yorker staff writer, gets at something deeper: "Grimaud doesn't sound like most pianists: she is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances. 'A wrong note that is played out of élan, you hear it differently than one that is played out of fear,' she says. She admires 'the more extreme players ... people who wouldn't be afraid to play their conception to the end.' Her two overriding characteristics are independence and drive, and her performances attempt, whenever possible, to shake up conventional pianistic wisdom."
  • Jeremy Denk's "Every Good Boy Does Fine." Subtitling this essay "A life in piano lessons" (which became the seed of a forthcoming book), the pianist and writer reflects on what various teachers tried to impress upon him over the years. He writes gleefully about the murderously mundane aspects of practicing: "One of the recurring story lines of my first years with [early teacher William] Leland was learning how to cross my thumb smoothly under the rest of my hand in scales and arpeggios. He devised a symmetrical, synchronous, soul-destroying exercise for this, in which the right and left thumbs reached under the other fingers, crablike, for ever more distant notes. Exercises like this are crucial and yet seem intended to quell any natural enthusiasm for music, or possibly even for life. As you deal with thumb-crossings, or fingerings for the F-sharp-minor scale, or chromatic scales in double thirds, it is hard to accept that these will eventually allow you to probe eternity in the final movement of Beethoven's last sonata. Imagine that you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address."
Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
1 month ago | |
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Ask Us Anything About Beethoven

Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1818.

Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1818.

Wikimedia Commons

What do you know about Beethoven? He wrote the Fifth Symphony (da da da dummmm ...) and he became deaf.

There's obviously a lot more to the man and his music, and one person who surely knows is composer and writer Jan Swafford. He's just published a new 1000-page book on Beethoven. Swafford is also well-regarded for his biographies of Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms, his own music and teaching at the Boston Conservatory.

Swafford will join me Thursday at noon ET for an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on the social networking site Reddit. Get your Beethoven questions ready and join us!

We asked Swafford to list a few unusual things about Beethoven he discovered while writing the book. It turns out that Beethoven was a paranoid, surprisingly generous, politically minded pain in the rear — who admitted failing at almost everything but music.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
1 month ago | |
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Meet The Cast Of The Met Opera's Labor Drama

Members of the American Guild of Musical Artists and the American Federation of Musicians, two of the unions embroiled in contract negotiations with Metropolitan Opera management, rally this morning at Dante Park across from Lincoln Center.

Members of the American Guild of Musical Artists and the American Federation of Musicians, two of the unions embroiled in contract negotiations with Metropolitan Opera management, rally this morning at Dante Park across from Lincoln Center.

Jeff Lunden/for NPR

Think opera plots are tough to follow? Try wading through the complicated drama playing out offstage at the Metropolitan Opera. At its most basic, it's the story of management and labor unions fighting over a supposedly dwindling pot of money. The deadline to solve the squabble before a lockout, midnight Thursday, was met with little resolution but a 72-hour extension.

Nothing about the Met's labor imbroglio is elementary, including its large cast of characters. On one side you have Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager since 2006, and his counsel, Howard Z. Robbins, the attorney who represented the National Hockey League in its 2012-13 lockout.

Negotiating with Gelb are hordes of workers. About 2,400 of the Met's 3,400 employees are union members. They cover a broad swath of activities ranging from singing in the chorus, playing in the orchestra, dancing, painting sets, running the box office, singing solo roles, working in the call center, posting bills (advertising posters), running cameras and taking tickets. Three of these unions (Local 32BJ, Local 30 and Local 210) reached agreements Thursday. Here is a list of the unions involved:


AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) — chorus, soloists, dancers, stage directors, choreographers
AFM Local 802 (American Federation of Musicians) — orchestra, librarians, music staff
Directors Guild of America — directors and stage managers
IATSE Local One (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) — carpenters, electricians
IATSE Local 4 — parks crew
IATSE Local 751 — box office treasurers
IATSE Local 764 — wardrobe, costumers
IATSE Local 794 — camera crew
IATSE Local 798 — wig/hair and makeup artists
IATSE Local 829 — scenic artists, scenic, costume, lighting, sound, projection designers
IATSE Local 829BP — bill poster
IBT Local 210 (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) — call center
IUOE Local 30 (International Union of Operating Engineers) — building engineers
IUPAT Local 1456 (International Union Of Painters And Allied Trades) — painter
SEIU Local 32BJ (Service Employees International Union) — ushers, ticket takers, cleaners, porters, security, office services

The negotiations are now being conducted with the help of two officials from the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), Deputy Director Allison Beck and Commissioner Kathleen Murray-Cannon.

The workers aren't always exactly unified. Each union has its own concerns and strategies. If one of the largest three unions — AGMA, IATSE Local 1 or AFM Local 802 — strikes a deal, it could greatly influence the negotiations for the remaining parties.

There have been many pronouncements about Gelb's artistic vision, the ups and downs of his tenure, the successful productions, the innovative Live HD movie theater broadcasts, the critical failures — even his attitudes about the viability of the art form.

Gelb's bottom line is that there's not enough money to sustain the Met as is. "No matter how you slice it," he told NPR, "opera is incredibly expensive." Gelb, who claims that two-thirds of the company's costs are labor related, would like to cut some of the unions' benefits, especially when it comes to the convoluted structure of overtime pay.

The unions say Gelb is simply spending too much and that the company's $2.8 million deficit doesn't warrant the nearly $30 million in cuts he seeks. The Wall Street Journal recently took a look at Met expenses on specific productions and box office potential. Plenty of hand-wringing can also be found over the high salaries of both Gelb and some of the union members.

The debate seems particularly acrimonious this time, due partly to the fact that so much of the drama has played out in our 21st-century media — something you couldn't say about previous Met labor disputes, which date back to 1885.

Among the most debilitating in recent times were the disputes of 1969 and 1980. President Carter had to intervene in 1980, sending a telegram to the unions and management pleading for a resolution to save the season, which had been indefinitely postponed. In 1969, failed contract talks forced the Met to open its season three and a half months late.

How this season will be affected is still anyone's guess. It's a positive sign that three of the unions have already settled and the chorus showed up Friday for a rehearsal of The Merry Widow. Still, they are among the smaller groups.

Gelb released a statement Friday, saying, "We want to work together with union representatives, and do everything we can to achieve new contracts, which is why we've agreed to an extension." The president of AFM Local 802, Tino Gagliardi, also weighed in, saying that while Gelb's move to postpone the lockout was constructive, "Settling this dispute in three days is highly unrealistic."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
1 month ago | |
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On The Eve Of A Possible Lockout, Met Opera Talks Remain Contentious

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3 min 57 sec   A worker unveils posters Tuesday for the coming season of New York's Metropolitan Opera. The Met's fall schedule could be in jeopardy if failed labor negotiations result in a lockout Friday.

A worker unveils posters Tuesday for the coming season of New York's Metropolitan Opera. The Met's fall schedule could be in jeopardy if failed labor negotiations result in a lockout Friday.

John Moore/Getty Images

At the Metropolitan Opera, drama is usually onstage. But for the past several months, it's been in the newspapers.

Contract deadlines for 15 of the 16 unions at the Met in New York are set to expire at midnight tonight, and negotiations will likely go down to the wire. A lockout shutting down the world's largest opera house seems imminent.

Management wants concessions from the unions to offset dwindling ticket sales. Union employees think they're being asked to pay for unchecked spending.

Late Wednesday, management proposed to two of the unions that a federal mediator be called, but the Met still hasn't taken a lockout off the table. All of this has played out very publicly.

Additional Information:

More On The Met Dispute

Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb has warned union workers of a lockout if a contract deal isn't settled by July 31.

Deceptive Cadence

Labor Conflict May Lock Out Met Opera Workers

Bryn Terfel as Wotan in the Met's production of Wagner's Ring cycle, one of the productions that has been criticized by some as too costly.

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War Of Words At Met Opera May Signal Shutdown

Acting Principal Clarinetist Jessica Phillips Rieske, chair of the orchestra's negotiating committee, says, "the media blackout was over before it had begun." In February, the day after the unions received management's initial proposals for cuts, details were leaked to The New York Times.

"It's sort of unprecedented for us to have these negotiations in the press," Rieske says. "It's the first time that's ever happened."

But it's not the first time Met labor negotiations have turned nasty. In 1969 and in 1980, extended lockouts canceled large chunks of the company's seasons. Under the Met's previous general manager, Joseph Volpe, labor relations — at least on the surface — seemed amicable.

Drew McManus, an arts consultant who's worked with opera companies and orchestras, says that after Peter Gelb took over as general manager in 2006, relations with the unions went bad very quickly.

"But instead of going public and getting very angry," McManus says, "the employer, the Met in this case, decided to go ahead and bring Joe back in. And that seemed to be fine until now, when the Met released a statement saying that they would not be using Joe and that Peter would be involved in the negotiations directly. And that's where everything kind of turned upside down."

Gelb brought in attorney Howard Z. Robbins, of the international law firm Proskauer, who represented the National Hockey League in its 2012-13 lockout. That was a sign, says D. Joseph Hartnett of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, who is representing six Met unions in the negotiations.

"This threat of a lockout, we view it very seriously," Hartnett says. "You know, you don't hire the attorney that locked out the NHL if you're not planning on a lockout."

For his part, Gelb has been as vocal in the press as his critics. "Certainly, taking on the unions is not fun, I can tell you that," Gelb said two weeks ago. "Unions, artistic workers, in this country are the highest paid in the world."

And Gelb told the Associated Press last week that "We need to impose a lockout because otherwise we have no ability to make them take this seriously."

Michael G. Dzialo of Pitta & Giblin LLP, a labor attorney who has represented several unions, including the Directors Guild of America, says he would have advised Gelb to choose his words more carefully: "If he were my client, I'd take him backstage and slap him around a bit, because he's gone off-script. You do not say that. What you say is, 'The last thing in the world we want to do is impose a lockout.'"

And that's exactly what the Met said in a statement when asked about Gelb's quote. Late yesterday, Gelb proposed to the unions representing the orchestra and the singers that they call in a federal mediator. Representatives from both unions said they're open to the idea if Gelb calls off the lockout. But press reports indicate that management intends to stick to its timetable.

In his interview with NPR, Gelb said that if he could negotiate a settlement with at least one or more of the big unions, "That will give us some momentum that will enable us to reach agreements with the other groups. Certainly, if we don't reach agreements, then it's going to have a deleterious effect, obviously, on the season opening."

The season is scheduled to begin Sept. 22 with a gala performance of a new production of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. The unions say they're willing to continue to work and talk past today's deadline.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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A Breath Of Inspiration: John Luther Adams' New 'Sila'

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Highlights from John Luther Adams' Sila, premiered at Lincoln Center on July 25, 2014.

Credit: Lincoln Center

Composer John Luther Adams has been enjoying enormous success. He won this year's Pulitzer Prize for his expansive, unsettling and darkly beautiful orchestral piece Become Ocean, which will be released in the fall in a recording by the Seattle Symphony. His monumental 2009 percussion piece Inuksuit has been recorded and staged several times now across the country and abroad, from Tennessee to Portugal — a success almost unthinkable in the age of one-and-done premieres.

The ideas that have long compelled Adams have found a new home and expression in his outdoor work Sila: The Breath of the World, which was premiered at Lincoln Center Friday evening, with a repeat performance the following night. (I attended both the Friday afternoon dress rehearsal and the second concert.) The twin hallmarks of Adams' work — a deep concern with the interactions between humans and the environment, an undeniable though wholly nonsectarian mysticism — are fused through masterly command of musical texture and pacing.

Jointly commissioned by two of Lincoln Center's signature summer series, the Mostly Mozart Festival and Lincoln Center Out of Doors, the premiere of Sila fulfilled goals of both: to engender the creation of new works and to use the organization's outdoor space more creatively, a welcome recent development for concertgoers familiar with the campus only through entering and exiting its temples of culture. Arrayed around what is broadly called the Hearst Plaza, the 81 performers in Sila were dotted across a grass lawn, among a grove of trees and even in a pool of water.

Sila is a piece intended to be played by 16 to 80 or more musicians grouped into five separate ensemble choirs of woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings and voices, who may perform the work in any combination, either simultaneously or successively. There is no conductor, and each musician chooses his or her own pacing through the score, as long as each sustained tone or rising phrase "lasts the length of one full exhalation," according to Adams' notes.

The piece is set within 16 "harmonic clouds" grounded on the first sixteen overtones of a low B-flat. Does that sound anarchic, or overly academic? Hardly. The music shimmers and shifts in magical and beautiful ways. And Sila is as much performance piece as sonic work. The long, luxurious phrases were underscored by choreographer Mark DeChiazza, who had the performers make slow, sweeping tai chi-like gestures that seemed to halt time.

As in other Adams works, and most famously in his Inuksuit, audience members also participate in shaping their own experiences. Where a listener chooses to sit, stand or meander alters the sonic experience, and each person's experience is different. I chose to rotate my listening spots every 10 or 15 minutes.

String players were stationed along the edge of a small grove of trees, by a post under the overhang of the Lincoln Center Theater. The winds, brass and timpani players standing on a grassy hill that descends from the entrance to The Juilliard School might as well have been sounding in a far-off field, though they were only a few dozen feet away. At the southeast corner of the space, the metallic hum of bowed cymbals dominated for a while; at the northeast, it was the clink of glasses and clatter of plates at a restaurant's outdoor tables. And in the middle of a pool at the heart of the performance space, singers stood knee-deep in water.

Led by musical director Doug Perkins, some of the country's foremost new music specialists played the premiere. They were culled from flocks of Adams devotees from across the country — members of Chicago's eighth blackbird, Philadelphia's The Crossing choir and Michigan's Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble among them. They performed alongside such New York denizens as the JACK Quartet, TILT Brass and Bang on a Can's Asphalt Orchestra and many of the city's notable freelancers (including John Altieri, the conductor/tuba player from NPR Music's recent 100+ BPM project.) Their gathering for Sila was a testament to the enthusiasm Adams' music has generated among performers.

At the first full performance, audience members were not allowed to walk along the main pathway on the long side of the pool, between the string players and a line of percussionists, though many sat there (as I did, briefly, during the dress rehearsal). By Saturday night, Adams had given his benediction for listeners to walk through there, and this major artery was soon clogged up. About 30 minutes into the piece, the experience was half meditation labyrinth, half the familiar slog of navigating an uptown 1 train during rush hour.

But something else transpired as well. Absent a stage, the traditional walls between musicians and listeners dissipated absolutely. That intimacy created a marvelous cocoon of shared experience and silky, ethereal layers of sound. The physical closeness did create its own perils: On Saturday, I saw a couple of people in alarming proximity to the musicians and their instruments snapping selfies mid-performance.

Yet even those interruptions couldn't permeate the quiet, deeply contemplative nature of Adams' elegantly wrought and mesmerizing work. The composer translates the Inuit title of the piece this way: "Sila is the wind and the weather, the forces of nature. But it's also something more. Sila is intelligence. It's consciousness. It's our awareness of the world around us, and the world's awareness of us." Even with the buzz of Manhattan so close, Adams and his musicians created a work of music, and of theater, that encouraged listeners to look both deeply inward and out into an imaginary expanse far beyond Hearst Plaza.

Sila ends with performers blowing through megaphones — no notes sounding, just long exhalations of breath you had to lean in closely to hear. Just as Saturday's performance was drawing to its close, a breeze visited, creating new waves of ripples in the pool.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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The Great War At 100: Music Of Conflict And Remembrance

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7 min 8 sec   Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (who later became an American citizen) lost an arm in World War I. He commissioned composers including Maurice Ravel to write pieces for the left hand alone.

Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (who later became an American citizen) lost an arm in World War I. He commissioned composers including Maurice Ravel to write pieces for the left hand alone.

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One hundred years ago today, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. The conflict drew in country after country and grew to an unprecedented scale. An estimated 9 million combatants lost their lives and more than 21 million were wounded in what came to be known as The Great War and, eventually, World War I.

Among the dead and the survivors were musicians. We've been listening to some of their creations. The extraordinary level of destruction inspired them in myriad ways. Some composers captured the war's violence while others seemed to counteract it by writing music that soothed. Still others came back wounded yet persevered. And all these years later, the war continues to resonate in works like the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night by Kevin Puts.

Have a favorite piece of music inspired by World War I? Let us know in the comments section or on Twitter or Facebook.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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