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Deceptive Cadence un-stuffs the world of classical music, which is both fusty and ferociously alive.
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Steve Reich At 80: The Phases Of A Lifetime In Music

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Heard on Weekend Edition Sunday

Composer Steve Reich, who turned 80 on Oct. 3.

Carolyn Cole/LA Times via Getty Images

Brian Eno. David Bowie. Kraftwerk. Radiohead. Aphex Twin. The National. These are just some of the contemporary artists and bands who have looked up to American composer Steve Reich. Since the 1960s, Reich's hypnotic and coolly modern music has won him fans across many genres, as well as a Pulitzer Prize.

Earlier this month, Reich celebrated his 80th birthday — and he's being feted in concerts around the world this year. So I headed to his home in upstate New York to speak about his career so far, and what's next.

Steve Reich is a quintessential New Yorker. He's a fast talker. He's usually dressed in all black, his outfit always topped off by a baseball cap. And he vividly remembers how much Sept. 11 reshaped his city.

Addressing 'Unfinished Business': Steve Reich On Sept. 11

Deceptive Cadence

Addressing 'Unfinished Business': Steve Reich On Sept. 11

In 2011, I spoke to him about the piece that he wrote as a reflection on that terrible day and its ramifications: WTC 9/11, for string quartet and pre-recorded tape.

"When I interviewed every friend and every neighbor," he told me then, "I asked them one question that never appears in the piece, which is: 'Do you think this could happen again? And do you think it could happen again in New York?' And everybody said, 'Do I think it could happen again? It's not a question of if, it's a question of when!'"

In WTC 9/11, the composer interspersed emergency calls from first responders and air traffic controllers with the recollections of his friends and neighbors.
The last movement of WTC 9/11 includes the recollections of Jewish women who sat with victims' remains and chanted psalms and other Biblical texts.

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Over the years, Reich has drawn upon his own Jewish roots — and faith — in some of his works. He was born to a Jewish family, but didn't grow up immersed in the religion, language or culture. "I'd been brought up Reform. I didn't know aleph and bet," he says, referring to the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. "I didn't know anything."

Reich started delving into traditional Judaism in the mid-1970s. And what led him to that spiritual path was something surprising: a trip he took to Ghana, in west Africa, to study drumming with Ewe and Ashanti masters.

"When I came home," the composer says, "one of the things I thought about was, 'This is incredible. Here's a tradition that's been handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Don't I have anything like that?'"

"And I began thinking," he continues, "'You know, I'm a member of the oldest existent group that has still remained somewhat cohesive, for going on 3500 years, and I don't know anything about it.' So I thought, 'Maybe I ought to go looking in my own backyard, and dig up the crabgrass, and see what's there!'"

Fifty Years Of Steve Reich's 'It's Gonna Rain'

Deceptive Cadence

Fifty Years Of Steve Reich's 'It's Gonna Rain'

Reich began using words as a basis for music back in the 1960s, experimenting with tape recordings and manipulating their speed, as in his 1965 piece It's Gonna Rain and 1966's Come Out. Come Out was inspired by the case of the Harlem Six, young African-American men who were arrested after a riot, and accused of murder. Daniel Hamm was one of them, and his case was later overturned. At the beginning of the piece, Hamm describes being beaten by police and trying to prove that he had been brutalized: "I had to, like, open the bruise up," Hamm said, "and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them."

"Come Out was a civil rights piece," Reich says. "The world premiere of Come Out was as pass-the-hat music for the retrial of the Harlem Six in Town Hall."

Reich has continued to find music in speech, hearing melody in the flow of words. "I mean, what tells you more about a person, a photograph of them, or a recording of their voice?" the composer says.

He took voices from his own life experience to create Different Trains, his first piece for string quartet and recorded voices, in 1988. Reich spent much of his childhood on trains shuttling between his divorced parents in New York and Los Angeles. This was the late 1930s and early 40s. As a grownup, Reich realized that if he had been a Jewish child in Europe back then, he would have been riding trains under very different circumstances. In his composition, he used the voices of his governess, a Pullman porter, and three Holocaust survivors to compare those experiences.

The melody of the human voice became one of Reich's signatures. He quotes Czech composer Leos Janácek: "Speech melody is like a water lily whose roots go down into the bottom of the soul."

But he's also a drummer who likes to play with time — and another recurring device in his music is called phasing.

Adam Sliwinski is a member of the group So Percussion, and Reich's 1971 piece Drumming is a touchstone for them. He explains how phasing works.

"We think of it as like when you're in your car, and you've got your windshield wipers on, and the person in front of you has their windshield wipers on, or their blinker," Sliwinski says. "And it looks for a minute like they're perfectly together. But then you notice that they're kind of coming apart — one of them is slightly faster. And then you think that maybe they're exactly opposite from each other. But then you realize no, that's impossible, and then they come back apart and back together again. That's a lot of what phasing is, and what it feels like."

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Steve Reich was always attracted to a huge swath of music. He grew up loving classical and jazz in equal measure.

"I became a composer because I'd heard the Rite of Spring of Stravinsky, I'd heard Bach's Fifth Brandenburg, I'd heard bebop — Charlie Parker, Miles Davis — music that had a lot of rhythmic energy, music which was finally harmonic. I know the Rite of Spring's harmonic quality is not that of Charlie Parker. Neither are they that of Johann Sebastian Bach. But they all had what Stravinsky called the magnetic attraction, the polaric attraction of sound."

When Reich began giving performances of his music back in the 1960s and 70s, he often did them in downtown galleries and loft spaces — alongside visual art that paralleled his kinetic musical ideas. His world was a galaxy away from the gold and glitter of New York's grand concert halls.

But over time, Reich's work has been embraced by all those temples of high culture. To mark his 80th birthday, concert venues around the globe have scheduled special concerts and series to celebrate his lifetime of work. But Reich is still speeding straight ahead: next month, he is having two new works premiered — one at the Royal Ballet in London, and the other at Carnegie Hall.

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Neville Marriner, Who Recorded The Beloved Soundtrack to 'Amadeus,' Has Died

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Conductor Neville Marriner.

Lukasz Unterschuetz/courtesy of the artist

Neville Marriner, the conductor and violinist who was something of an entrepreneur as well as the guiding spirit behind one of the most successful classical recordings of all time — the soundtrack to the 1984 smash movie Amadeus — died overnight at age 92 at his home in London. His death was announced by the chamber orchestra he founded, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Marriner was made Commander of the British Empire in 1979, and was knighted in 1985. In 2015, Queen Elizabeth named him a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour. Marriner was also most certainly one of the most-recorded classical artists of all time, with more than 500 recordings made with his ensemble.

Born on April 15, 1924, in the cathedral city of Lincoln in England's East Midlands, Marriner originally trained as a violinist. His studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music were interrupted by World War II. After serving in the Royal Navy, he returned to the conservatory and went on to study at the Paris Conservatoire. After school, he briefly taught at Eton College and then at the Royal Conservatory, but Marriner's main focus was as a working performer.

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He played second violin in the Martin String Quartet and was the co-founder of the Jacobean Ensemble, focusing on 17th- and 18th-century repertoire, before joining the Philharmonia Orchestra as a violinist in 1952. In 1956, he joined the London Symphony Orchestra [LSO] as its principal second violin, where he remained until 1968.

Neville Marriner VEVO YouTube

But Marriner was not content to remain part of a much larger institution — nor to remain a violinist. Along with studying with his mentor Pierre Monteux, he worked as an extra with Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler, as well as with Joseph Krips, George Szell and Leopold Stokowski.

Three years into his tenure with the LSO, Marriner formed the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields [ASMF], a chamber orchestra that has grown into one of the best-known groups of its kind in the world, with more than 500 albums to its credit. Marriner remained music director of the ASMF until 2011, whereupon he was named "life president" and violinist Joshua Bell was named as his successor.

Along with nurturing his burgeoning St. Martin in the Fields orchestra, Marriner continued to maintain a vigorous dual life in the U.K. and the U.S. In 1969, he took on a second major post, as the first music director of the then-new Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and served as the artistic director of Michigan's Meadowbrook Festival from 1979-1984. Between 1978 and 1986, he was music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. (During a very public 16-month labor battle in Minneapolis between the orchestra players and the ensemble's administration, Marriner joined two other former Minnesota conductors, Edo de Waart and Stanislaw Skrowaczevski, in beseeching management to reach an agreement with the musicians.) After leaving Minnesota in 1986, he took up the post of music director of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he stayed until 1989.

Though his repertoire reached from Bach to Stravinsky and beyond, he made a real specialty of 18th-century music with his ASMF. And it was with that repertoire that Marriner became most well known and beloved by a wide public — whether or not they knew it was him on the podium. He recorded a complete cycle of Mozart symphonies (as well as major works of Handel and Haydn) during a time when, as Marriner later told Gramophone, "the big surge of companies recording everything anybody had ever written began. In order to make the catalogue complete, record companies were looking for orchestras of the right size and scale to play Mozart, so we were lucky that the Academy had the reputation of being ideal for 18th-century music.'"

Marriner and the ASMF went on to make literally hundreds of albums that helped sustain their organization. But mainstream fame came when Marriner and the ASMF performed most of the music used in the 1984 Mozart-based film Amadeus, which won eight Oscars and for which Marriner also acted as music supervisor. The Amadeus soundtrack went on to become one of the best-selling classical albums of all time.

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Nadia Sirota On Making Music Accessible (Even When It's Weird)

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Heard on Weekend Edition Sunday

Nadia Sirota wants contemporary classical music to feel approachable. "There's no chance it'll disappoint a new listener, but people do need a way in," she says.

Samantha West/Courtesy of the artist An Evening With Nico Muhly, 'Two Boys' And Other Works

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An Evening With Nico Muhly, 'Two Boys' And Other Works

If the viola is your instrument, it can be difficult to find repertoire to showcase your talent. But violist Nadia Sirota has plenty to play. She champions new composers to write music for her and forms ensembles to play it. Sirota's longtime collaborator Nico Muhly recently released an album called Keep in Touch, featuring two pieces written specifically for her.

"My attraction to the viola — and, I suspect, some of his attraction to the viola as well — also comes from this sort of weird quality that the instrument has," Sirota tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "It sounds like a woman singing very low, or a man singing very high — and to me, that is just an absolutely gorgeous quality."

Sirota has also forged a parallel career as a host on Q2, the online station from New York Public Radio, and of the Peabody Award-winning podcast Meet the Composer. For each show, she interviews a composer and scores the entire segment with their work. It gives listeners a chance to get to know the composer and their sound simultaneously.

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One purpose of the podcast, Sirota says, is to dispel the myth that classical composers are all dead. "I want people to understand that these are human people who are alive and fallible and occasionally brilliant," she says. "And they have moments of genius and moments of total dorkdom."

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Sirota says she's eager to give her listeners an entry point into classical music. "For me, this world has always been so incredibly vibrant and alive and exciting. There's no chance it'll disappoint a new listener, but people do need a way in."

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Newlywed Composer Christopher Rouse On His Encoded Musical Love Letters

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Heard on All Things Considered

"Even people who come in cold without any knowledge — you still hope that somehow the music will speak to them," Christopher Rouse says.

Jeffrey Herman/Courtesy of the artist

Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 3, which appears on his latest album, contains many levels of meaning. It's an homage to the Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev, whose Second Symphony serves as a structural model for the piece. It's an encoded musical portrait of Rouse's wife. And it's an engaging piece of music even for a listener who possesses none of this background knowledge.

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Rouse, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and former composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic, tells NPR's Robert Siegel he wrote the piece in a musical code. "I have a system that I use — sometimes, not in all of my works, but in some — that equates letters of the alphabet with musical pitches," Rouse says. "And so, if I wish to spell out names or places or events or whatnot, I just take the letters of the words and convert them into musical notes."

In this case, Rouse wanted to talk about his wife, Natasha. At several points during the symphony, the code spells out her name over and over again; the variations are intended to make up "a kind of physical portrait of her," Rouse says. "It's a way of setting myself kind of an artificial challenge and then seeing if I can fulfill it successfully, if I can make music out of it," he says. "For example, the letters of her name are the letters of her name, and so I have to use the pitches that come out of that. And it's just something that kind of keeps me on my toes a bit more."

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Rouse admits that Natasha also inspired another composition on the album, titled "Odna Zhizn," which is Russian for "a life." "I've never actually 'fessed up to that," Rouse says, "but I will now, because we did get married earlier this year, so she seems to be willing to let me let the cat out of the bag."

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It's not always the most pleasant-sounding piece of music. The sound is turbulent –- just like the difficult life it describes. "[Natasha] was sexually abused as a child," Rouse says. "So she ran away from home at 16 and decided to hitchhike out west. One of the people who picked her up held her for three days and raped her repeatedly. She ended up in Arizona in Tucson and she was homeless, so she was living under a bridge and eating out of dumpsters. And all of that before the age of 18."

To emerge from such a childhood in any condition is a feat. "I certainly couldn't have survived that, I don't think, and I'm not sure most people could either," Rouse says. "But that's why the fact that she is this warmhearted, wonderful person is all the more amazing."

Rouse hopes the mood of struggle in the composition will be legible to those who don't know the story behind it. "You hope to write something that even people who come in cold without any knowledge — you still hope that somehow the music will speak to them," he says.

The New York Times has called Rouse's music "some of the most anguished, most memorable music around." But he doesn't necessarily come across as anguished in person.

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First Impressions: A Guide To New Music In The New Season

"Well, there was a time of my life — particularly, the later '80s and early 1990s, where it seemed that every time I had a new piece to write, somebody died whose death really had a big impact on me," Rouse says. "And so there's a whole series of pieces that are responses to deaths. And those are generally pretty dark works."

His music from the early '80s, Rouse says, gave him a reputation for fast, loud and violent compositions. "That was kind of my shtick in some people's eyes," Rouse says. "You know, if you do something three or four times, even though you may do it in different ways each time, some people will begin to typecast you as 'Well, he's the doom-and-gloom composer' or kind of the 'wild child composer.'"

Rouse believes it can be useful to consider these characterizations. "It's good sometimes just to stand back and say, 'Do I really want to be typecast in that way?'" he says. "And if not, you make a conscious attempt to go at what you do in a different way."

So now, perhaps, he'll be pegged as "the 67-year-old newlywed composer."

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'It's Familiar To All The Women In My Family:' Adapting Von Trier For The Opera

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Heard on Weekend Edition Saturday

Breaking the Waves explores the relationship between a deeply religious young woman named Bess (played by Keira Duffy) and a Nordic oil worker named Jan.

Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia

This week, a new opera based on the popular but controversial Lars von Trier film, Breaking the Waves, opened in Philadelphia. With its potent combination of sex, religion and transgression, the subject matter seems ripe for operatic treatment.

Breaking the Waves is set on a remote island in Scotland, where a deeply religious young woman named Bess marries a Nordic oil worker named Jan. But circumstances conspire to take their romance and her sexual awakening to dark places. Composer Missy Mazzoli says she was drawn to the material because of its big ideas.

"It's about the nature of goodness, the nature of loyalty, the nature of faith," she says. "And what happens when all these things sort of contradict each other or get in the way. What do you do in that impossible situation to still be a good person?"

When Jan is injured in an accident on a North Sea oil rig and becomes paralyzed, he suggests that Bess have sex with other men and report back on her experiences. Von Trier's film polarized audiences and critics when it was released in 1996. Some called it misogynistic. James Darrah, who directs the opera, likes the film, but he still had one basic question for the project's creators.

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"Why turn this into an opera?" Darrah asks, laughing. "Why do it, when the film has such an effect on people and is incredibly potent and full of really amazing performances, too, that are maximizing the potential of what I think good film can stir up and open dialogues about and also tell stories."

The idea came from librettist Royce Vavrek, who's been a fan of the film since he was 14. He thinks the unorthodox storyline is rooted in the characters' essential goodness.

"Jan sets her on this journey because he wants to set her free," Vavrek says. "He doesn't want to ruin her. He believes that it's the only thing that he can do to go and allow her to live her life. He views it as a gift."

As for Bess, Vavrek says, "[She] is just this unfiltered creature that seems to have just pure goodness and all she wants is to take all of the advice, all of the ideas of her community — of her mother, or the doctor, of her husband — and filter that into a good life."

But Bess's pure motivations cannot ensure her happiness. "It's almost fatalistic," Vavrek says. "Even though the intentions are good, the result is really, really sad." As the opera goes on, Bess gets shunned by members of her community.

Composer Missy Mazzoli says, far from being a misogynistic narrative, Von Trier's story is illuminating — and exaggerating, in a very theatrical way — a situation that many women find themselves in.

"[Bess] invests in this idea that she is a very, very powerful agent in this narrative," librettist Royce Vavrek says.

Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia

"This feeling of being a woman in an impossible situation and feeling like you have no power and no agency and having everyone around you telling you what to do is extremely familiar," Mazzoli says. "It's familiar to me. It's familiar to all the women in my family."

That familiarity is a large part of why she was drawn to the project. "I wouldn't say that it's a feminist piece, at all — that's not its preoccupation — but I did feel that there's an element of compassion and understanding of this very particular part of the female experience," she says.

Bess's love for Jan is such that he can't see she's probably mentally ill. But librettist Royce Vavrek insists that, in a way, she's a woman in control.

"She believes that she has the power to cure her husband," Vavrek says. "She believes that she was the agent that brought him home. And so there is something really remarkable as...her psychology. She invests in this idea that she is a very, very powerful agent in this narrative."

And audiences need to stick out Breaking the Waves to the very end to see how that agency manifests itself. The show runs Sept. 22 through Oct. 1 at Opera Philadelphia.

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James Horner's Posthumous Works Tell A Story Of His Life

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Heard on All Things Considered

James Horner in 2011. The composer, responsible for more than 100 film scores over 40 years, died in a plane crash in 2015.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Tomorrow, two final works from composer James Horner will reach American ears: a concert piece being released on CD, and his score for the remake of the Western adventure The Magnificent Seven. The composer died a little more than a year ago in a plane crash, after creating more than 100 film scores over nearly 40 years.

Horner's score for Titanic is one of the best-selling orchestral soundtracks of all time. He won an Oscar for that score and another for the film's theme song, Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." But his career began much more modestly: He started out scoring pulpy B-movies, including Humanoids from the Deep for Roger Corman. His wife, Sara Horner, remembers meeting James when they were both students at UCLA.

"He took all of the money he made on Humanoids from the Deep, and then dumped it into the next score — he didn't take any money out," she says. "He used it to make the music as good as he could and lived off the money he made as a TA at UCLA."

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She adds, laughing, "We just lived on nothing, just nothing."

Back then, one of her late husband's colleagues at Corman's New World Pictures was a young model builder named James Cameron. Both men's careers took off, and the composer earned his first Oscar nomination for his score to Cameron's movie Aliens. Horner went on to score such hits as Glory, Apollo 13, Braveheart, and Avatar.

To Cameron, the talent that led to Horner's success was about more than just technical skill.

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"He was a sensitive guy. He had a huge heart," Cameron says. "I think the depth of his emotion and his sensitivity is what gave him a lot of his musical talent. I mean, sure, he was classically trained and he was a pianist and all that, and he knew what he was doing technically. But I think it was that he, himself, was a very emotional person."

Horner had already begun work on the score for The Magnificent Seven remake when he died flying a small plane on June 22 of last year. Horner's longtime arranger and score producer, Simon Franglen, took the themes Horner had written, worked up an orchestral suite, and presented it to director Antoine Fuqua. Franglen recalls telling Fuqua, "This was the score as James would have liked it to have sounded."

Fuqua was taken with the project. "You know, he was crying when he was listening, obviously," says Franglen. "He then said, 'Well, I want you to finish this. I want you to take this forward' — which was a really gutsy call for a $100 million movie."

Franglen and the rest of the composer's team got together and used those themes to craft a score in the most James Horner-like way they could.

It really was unusual for Fuqua to accept Horner's unfinished score — because, Franglen says, the business of film music has changed. "The idea that a director would say to him, 'Here's my film — go and do your best,' which is what used to happen ... no longer happened," he says.

Franglen says Horner was increasingly being asked to emulate music that directors had already used to edit their films. Towards the end of his career, Horner had two scores thrown out and replaced. But, Franglen notes that Horner's style remains relevant — and worth fighting to maintain — for him as an artist.

"James understood where the soul in a film was, better than almost anybody I've come across," Franglen says. "That sense of melody is something that I want to hold onto, in terms of film scores. I think often it's now become almost just this background noise, and it might as well be a sound effect."

In recent years, partly out of frustration, Horner returned to his first love: the concert hall. In 2014, he wrote a concerto for violin, cello and orchestra. He followed this project with another concerto for four French horns and orchestra. One of the players on this horn concerto was James Thatcher, a veteran on the Hollywood scoring stages, and the composer's principal horn player since 1985. Thatcher, too, emphasized the power of Horner's emotional attachment to his work.

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"I could see his eyes watering up a bit when we were playing some really beautiful stuff that he'd written," Thatcher says. "It was more than just, you know, being a famous composer or having the honors of men. It was something that came from deep, deep within the man himself."

The horn concerto, titled Collage, got its world premiere in London three months before Horner died. And the response was, in many ways, the story of his life.

"The music critics actually really panned the piece, you know. 'Oh, this sounds like Titanic' — you know, that type of stuff," Thatcher says. "But the audience loved it. And he came out for three bows. James was never ashamed of what he wrote. He stayed true to himself, and that's why the audiences love it."

Thatcher says Horner supervised the recording just weeks before his fatal crash. And its release on disc, the same day The Magnificent Seven opens, will likely be the last new music by James Horner we'll ever hear. But his widow Sara says what we hear in all of Horner's music was his true voice.

"He could write music that expressed something inside of him that, in everyday real life, it was very difficult for him to communicate," Sara says. "And I think that part of it, the emotional connection that he had with his audience, was, for him, the whole point of it."

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09Mazurka, in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4

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    Mazurka, in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4
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    2016

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On his new album, pianist Pavel Kolesnikov arranges Chopin's Mazurkas like a mixtape.

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If there's one piece by Chopin that can truly be called "trippy," it's the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4 – especially in this spellbinding performance by pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. The young Russian has just released a new album of Chopin's Mazurkas, arranged not chronologically but by mood and texture, flowing like a mixtape.

Pavel Kolesnikov plays Chopin's Mazurkas.

The A minor Mazurka could be called the "Ambient" Mazurka. Everything about it is dreamy; it floats along as if Chopin made up the music on the spot in a great opium cloud. You could argue it's a kind of strange precursor to Brian Eno's Music for Airports or Gil Evans' spacious jazz arrangements.

The piece begins with the delicately perfumed dissonance of the opening four bars. Played sotto voce, they stumble in a daze, as if stoned and unsure where to turn next. From this bewilderment, the main melody emerges. Its ravishing beauty mutates in unexpected ways with diaphanous ornamentations.

The key to making it all so intoxicating is the attention Kolesnikov pays to rhythm. His slight, deliberate hesitations, lingering notes and unexpected cadences make this one of the finest performances of this beloved piece. Compare it, say, to a rendition by the legendary Arthur Rubinstein and you might be surprised: The elder pianist's performance feels solid, but light on atmosphere. (Virgil Thomson's colorful description comes to mind; he calls Rubinstein's playing "authoritative, direct and courteous, like the captain of a trans-Atlantic liner.")

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A World Of Expression In A Tiny Chopin Mazurka

The A minor Mazurka is full of surprises, but the best one arrives at the very end. You think you've finally found your way home as Chopin's harmonies begin to resolve and the music shrinks to just a couple lonely notes. There's a pause — Kolesnikov makes it a big one — and out of nowhere those inscrutable, dissonant chords from the opening bars return, hanging in the haze, ready to begin the journey all over again.

(Pavel Kolesnikov's Chopin Mazurkas is out now on Hyperion Records.)

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Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and celebrated critic Virgil Thomson, photographed in 1972. The Library of America has brought out a second volume of his writings on music.

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Talk to nearly any classical music critic about heroes of the trade and one name usually comes up: Virgil Thomson. Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times advises: "Every practicing and aspiring critic today should read Thomson's exhilarating writings."

Life After A Brain Injury: 'I'm Not Terrified Of Death Anymore'

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Life After A Brain Injury: 'I'm Not Terrified Of Death Any More'

Tim Page, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former critic of Newsday and the Washington Post is another Thomson enthusiast. He has edited reissues of the critic's important books and articles. The second volume for Library of America, Thomson: The State of Music & Other Writings, was published in August. The first was selected as one of NPR's best books of 2014.

Thomson — the only composer to win a Pulitzer for a film score, 1948's Louisiana Story — was equally gifted in writing about music as composing it. From 1940 to 1954 he was at the New York Herald Tribune. Page says Thomson "wrote about music with humor and a vivid method of description that was possible to comprehend and enjoy whether or not you were a trained musician."

Thomson had his shortcomings, too. Page points them out in the conversation below, which opened up broadly to include the state of classical music criticism in America. You can also hear Thomson himself discussing the composing life, as well as his friendship with Philip Glass and work with Gertrude Stein.

Page and I also discussed his personal struggles, including a recent traumatic brain injury and a life lived on the autism spectrum. You can explore that part of our conversation on our health blog, Shots.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Huizenga: Anthony Tommasini at The New York Times recently said in an article about this new volume you've published that Virgil Thomson was "one of the most astute and influential critics of the 20th century." What was Thomson's influence — if you agree with that statement, that is?

Tim Page: I agree. However, one quickly has to add, as Tony does in that article, that Thomson has some pretty major faults. He promoted his friends shamelessly. He simply didn't understand and/or respond to a lot of different composers. He didn't like Wagner very much. Or Sibelius. He wrote a blistering essay about the Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony. Virgil startles people. But then again, he's so much fun to disagree with. Even if you think he's wrong on this or on that he's still really interesting to read. And I found when I was first becoming a critic, back in the '70s, that reading critics that I disagreed with profoundly, if they were smart and engaging, was one of the things that inspired me to add my voice to the discussion.

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Tim Page's latest book collects the writings of American critic and composer Virgil Thomson.

Maggie Smith/University of Southern California

Is Thomson is still influential today?

It's hard to say. It's not like it was in the old days when everybody is sitting around waiting for the newspaper to come out and find out what people thought of this or that. I mean critics can still make a difference. But the power to close a play or, to take the opposite tack, to make a play a huge success, is not something critics can do in the same way that they once could. Is Thomson influential? Certainly for those who care about the art of music criticism. There isn't a critic out there who will not learn something from reading Virgil Thomson and I would say the same thing about anybody who is really serious about music too.

What's interesting about him too is that his scope of curiosity was so wide. He wrote about the process of being a critic and being a composer with articles like "Instruments of Criticism" and "Why Composers Write?" and "The State of Music Criticism." And he commented on the workings of orchestras and boards of directors and philanthropy. It's a fascinating view.

Yeah, he wrote as both outsider and insider. Virgil could not be swayed by the high powers in the in the music community. He wrote in a different time, with a tendency to generalize wildly, which was very common at the time but is now just about the worst thing you can do in your in your writing.

Virgil Thomson: On being a composer

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Here's an example of him being a little bit more generous, which I think is typical Thomson in terms of the scope of his interests. He writes about Rolling Stone magazine in 1974: "Rolling Stone, a thick weekly tabloid devoted to pop and rock, is charmingly written for the most part and sometimes distinguished. I recommend it. It does not read like paid advertising; it reads like criticism, though I am no judge of the materials that it purports to cover. Nor do I know what interests own it. I merely enjoy its vigor."

Isn't that nice? I think that's a terrific paragraph – and that's sort of the way I think people now should read Thomson. They won't know all the artists he's talking about; they certainly won't know the worldly circumstances of what was going on with those artists at that particular time, but it's still interesting reading. Criticism really can be an art in itself even if we know nothing about what is being discussed. And I think that is a very open-minded way of describing Rolling Stone by a man born in the 19th century.

I feel in a way Thomson's music has been a little bit ignored compared to his writings. And as my NPR Music colleague Mark Mobley points out, in this election year, someone really should be mounting a production of Thomson's Susan B. Anthony opera The Mother of Us All. Where would you recommend starting when approaching his music?

I would probably start with that particular opera. It's gorgeous. He and [librettist] Gertrude Stein, who quarreled like mad, worked together wonderfully. I mean it's a little like Gilbert and Sullivan, who never liked each other very much. It's an important work that examines feminism and women's suffrage. It's been done at least a couple of times in the last dozen years or so, I believe. And I think it will continue to be played.

It's not just the operas that are good. I enjoy the Cello Concerto and some of the film scores. But one thing about why we don't hear more Virgil is the fact that not a lot of it is all that good. A lot of it really seems kind of trivial and kind of tossed off. I think if you talked to Virgil in an honest moment he would confess that.

Virgil Thomson: On finding your 'creative hygiene'

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It's tempting while reading Thomson to get all nostalgic for the days when more people cared about classical music criticism. Thomson makes criticism seem as vital as the music itself. This was a time when composers and conductors actually appeared on the covers of Time magazine.

When I started writing criticism regularly, The New York Times had something like four or five staff critics as well as three or four people who were stringers who wrote everywhere. When I was at Newsday in New York, as their chief critic, I was there with Peter Goodman. The New York Post had a classical music critic, Harriett Johnson, as well as some very fine stringers. The Washington Post had two critics when I was there with Joseph McLellan. Time magazine had its regular critic and Newsweek had a regular critic. You had classical music criticism all over the place. It's very different now. And I miss those days too.

In 1974 Thomson wrote: "In no American city is there the number of papers there were in say, 1910 or 1920. And among those still surviving, none can offer its former spaces or the late deadlines appropriate for filling them." So in '74 he was already lamenting some cutback. It sounds kind of prophetic.

That's for sure. And remember, there were great critics before Thomson, too. Critics who are still very much worth reading: W.J. Henderson was one, James Gibbons Huneker was one. Also Henry Finck. There were a lot of very fine critics in those days, and pretty much every small newspaper had a critic.

So in 1974, Thomson is lamenting the fact that there are fewer papers and fewer opportunities. And now, at least by some reports, there are only about a dozen or so classical music critics at U.S. papers today — a drastically smaller number from some five dozen critics about 20 years ago. So my question is, other than those of us who write about classical music, does anyone really care about that? Or should anyone care?

I think people do care. But not a huge amount of them. And I think a whole new generation has grown up without thinking about newspapers. I have three children ranging between 21 and 30 and I don't think they ever buy newspapers, you know. They're smart kids, and they make use of the fact that you can actually get to the newspaper sites online and learn about what's going on in the world. But I don't think they feel morally bound to support papers because it's just nothing they've ever really gotten used to. And I don't know where this leads.

Virgil Thomson: On Glass and Stein

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Thomson also wrote: "It takes three people to make music properly: one man to write it, another to play it, and the third to criticize it." Now that last person, it seems to me, is almost completely disposable today.

Well, you know I would agree with you except for the amazing amount of writing about music that you find online. It may be disposable from a professional standpoint. Let's put it this way, if you're trying to decide whether to go into music criticism or something which will pay you a little better, pretty much anything you might want to consider will pay you a little better.

On the other hand, you read these very long and sometimes very smart reviews on Amazon which go on for eight or nine hundred words, not by professional critics and of course I'm not saying all the reviews can be trusted but you'll find some really smart people writing about music. There are a number of contemporary sites and other music sites you can go to. I think people are still interested. I just don't think that there's a business model for it anymore. At least right now.

So you're a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California. Are you are you telling your students not to go into music criticism?

Well, I look at it in a funny way. I think what I teach them will be important to them. But it's different. Am I trying to lure them by saying, "Someday, keep this up, you're going to be the music critic of the New York Times?" No, that's not the way it works — or at least not the way it is likely to work.

But I found that almost all the students with whom I've remained in touch have gone on to do really cool things. I have students who've gone on to be biographers, scholars in one manner or the other, arts advocates, or involved in public relations for artistic organizations and, yes, some who are critics. I'm really teaching them how to write and how to think about things critically.

And we don't get a lot of critical thinking about much of anything these days, but especially about the arts. And one of the things Virgil said one time — when he was asked about criticism and whether there was any point to it — was, you know there are problems with the medium but it's the only antidote we have to paid publicity.

(Excerpts of Virgil Thomson's interviews, and his 1980 Harvard lectures, courtesy of Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington, by Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve. Original interviews are held at Yale University's Oral History of American Music project.)

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From Trash To Triumph: The Recycled Orchestra

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When you think of an orchestra, you're probably picturing refined woodwinds, brass, and strings. But one ensemble I recently met is made up mostly of kids who play instruments made out of literal trash. This is the Recycled Orchestra from Cateura, Paraguay, and their group is the subject of a new documentary film.

Cateura is not a town, really. It's a slum alongside a landfill, located not far from Paraguay's capital city, Asunción.

Every day, about 3 million pounds of solid waste get dumped in Cateura. Many families eke out their existence by scavenging trash from the landfill to resell, and kids regularly get pulled out of school to help. During rainstorms, the landfill floods, and residents have to wade through contaminated water.

"Really, to be honest with you," says 16-year-old violinist Noelia Rios, "there was practically nothing in Cateura. What there was most was drugs."

Her violin, like many in the orchestra, is made out of cans, wooden spoons and bent forks. One of the ensemble's cellos uses an oil drum for its body. String pegs are created from detritus like old cooking utensils and even the heel of a worn-out women's shoe. Drum heads are made from old X-ray film, held in place with copious amounts of packing tape. Fifteen-year-old Tobias Armoa plays a saxophone made out of a drainpipe, melted copper, coins, spoon handles, cans and bottle caps.

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The Recycled Orchestra was founded 10 years ago by Favio Chavez. "I went to work in Cateura as an environmental engineer," Chavez says. "I saw that there were a lot of children there, and I had the idea to teach them music in my free time."

Chavez' classes became so popular that they soon ran out of donated instruments. So he asked Nicolas Gomez, a talented carpenter in the community nicknamed "Cola," to make new instruments for his group — out of stuff from the landfill.

Several years ago, the orchestra caught the attention of a team of filmmakers led by executive producer Alejandra Amarilla. She knew that most people outside Paraguay had no clue about her home country. So the team went looking for a story to tell.

"It was mostly to be able to create awareness on children's issues," Amarilla says. "The uniqueness of the story that I ended up picking was that it contained a very strong emotional component, and very inspiring."

The Landfill Harmonic: An Orchestra Built From Trash

Deceptive Cadence

The Landfill Harmonic: An Orchestra Built From Trash

Four years ago, the film team made a short video for a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise $175,000 to make a full-length documentary. Not only did they raise the money — the video went viral. Since then, the Recycled Orchestra has performed for politicians, monarchs and Pope Francis. The group plays Mozart, Paraguayan folk music, even Frank Sinatra. And the young musicians have backed up artists like Stevie Wonder, Metallica and Megadeth.

These days, kids from Cateura are flocking to join the orchestra. Ten-year-old Cinthia Servin, who plays the violin, says that she looked up to some of the older girls in the ensemble, and saw all the amazing opportunities they were having to travel well beyond Paraguay: "I wanted to play because it seemed like they liked what they were playing," she says, "and I wanted to visit other countries."

But it hasn't been easy for the Recycled Orchestra to go from being a community-based group to being the toast of international development folks and media around the world.

"Nothing that happened to us was planned, of any of this," Chavez says. "We're still learning to deal with it, moment to moment."

In the meantime, the ensemble has brought a lot of good to Cateura. Money the orchestra has generated from its international touring has funded the building of new, safer homes for several members of the group and their families — and the orchestra's lead instrument maker, Cola Gomez.

Chavez says there's also been a bigger change. "What we have achieved," he says, "is that in the community, children are respected. And respect for the moment that they need to get an education. It's something sacred. Before, it wasn't like this. Before I gave music classes, the mom or dad would take the kid away by the hand because they had to go to work. Today, that's unthinkable, impossible for it to happen. And we've already achieved the most difficult thing, which is to change the community."

Maybe it didn't have to be music that triggered such a fundamental shift. It could have been soccer, or chess, or theater, or some other activity.

But Chavez says that the kids playing in the Recycled Orchestra are creating something gorgeous out of nothing.

"To be a musician," he says, "you have to be responsible, persistent, tenacious, conscientious and sensitive. Without these values, you can't be a musician. But music has such a great power that it can't be just of the musicians. Music can transform society. "

Even more people will learn about that transformation as the documentary, Landfill Harmonic, opens in theaters around the U.S. this month, and screens later on HBO Latino.

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The tumultuous Detroit summer of 1967 inspired a new work by composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra will premiere it in March.

AFP/Getty Images

Interested in Steve Jobs, Georgia O'Keefe or Alice in Wonderland? They are all explored in new music in the upcoming American concert season.

In The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, composer Mason Bates puts the life of the tech exec onstage at Santa Fe Opera, while Missy Mazzoli gives Lars von Trier's emotionally riveting film Breaking the Waves the operatic treatment in Philadelphia. In Letters From Georgia, Kevin Puts creates music for the correspondence of artist Georgia O'Keefe. Yo-Yo Ma plays Esa-Pekka Salonen's new Cello Concerto in Chicago, the LA Phil New Music Group goes to Wonderland, and in the Motor City, jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard unveils a new work recalling Detroit's turbulent summer of 1967.

The many new offerings, all over the country, look tantalizing. Please let us know what we missed on Facebook and Twitter. And make some plans to hear a premiere!


ORCHESTRA

The New York Philharmonic has a few firsts in store, beginning Oct. 13, when clarinetist Kari Kriikku (called a musician of "explosive agility" by Alex Ross of The New Yorker) plays the New York premiere of Kaija Saariaho's D'OM LE VRAI SENS. On Dec. 28, a new orchestral piece by Wynton Marsalis sees its world premiere, while Emanuel Ax unveils HK Gruber's new Piano Concerto Jan. 5. And March 1, Leonidis Kavakos plays the world premiere of the Fourth Violin Concerto by Lera Auerbach.

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Upstate, the adventurous Albany Symphony celebrates the 25th anniversary of its music director, David Alan Miller, as he leads the orchestra in three world premieres. On Dec. 8 it's a new orchestral work by Colorado composer Conor Brown; on March 4th, Michael Torke's Three Concertinos for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon; and a new work written for Miller by George Tsontakis on April 8.

What if Edvard Grieg had completed a Second Piano Concerto? On Nov. 11, conductor JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, along with pianist Carl Petersson, will explore what it might have sounded like via the U.S. premiere of Norwegian composer Helge Evju's Concerto in B minor, built on fragments by Grieg.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra celebrates its centennial by commissioning 10 American composers to write short works. Baltimore Bomb, by Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw, premieres on the orchestra's opening gala Sept. 17. UNSUNG by Lori Laitman debuts Sept. 29, while Double Play by TJ Cole premieres Nov. 18 and Dancin' Blue Crabs by Jonathan Leshnoff debuts Feb. 16. The GAME, by Christopher Theofanidis, premieres June 15.

About to start his fifth season with the Philadelphia Orchestra, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who was recently named music director of the Metropolitan Opera, as of 2020) leads the world premiere of the Organ Concerto by Christopher Rouse with soloist Paul Jacobs Nov. 17. On March 30, Bramwell Tovey leads the world premiere of the Duo Concerto for Vibraphone and Marimba, based on music by Pat Metheny and arranged by the orchestra's principal percussionist, Christopher Deviney.

In Washington, D.C. Oct. 27, violinist Nicola Benedetti joins the National Symphony Orchestra as soloist in the East Coast premiere of Wynton Marsalis' Violin Concerto. May 24, Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates unveils a new orchestral work as a part of the season-long John F. Kennedy Centennial Celebration.

Alisa Weilerstein plays the world premiere of a new cello concerto by Matthias Pintscher with the Boston Symphony Orchestra March 24.

Harald Hoffmann/Decca

The Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons present the world premiere of Everything Happens So Much by Timo Andres on Nov. 15. Sofia Gubaidulina's Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Bayan (a Russian button accordion) receives its American premiere Feb. 23. On March 24, François-Xavier Roth leads the BSO in the world premiere of Mattias Pintscher's Cello Concerto with soloist Alisa Weilerstein.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is flush with premieres. On Oct. 1, The LA Phil New Music group, led by John Adams, presents four world premieres, including a piece for piano and chamber orchestra by Ingram Marshall and a work by 16-year-old composer and clarinetist Andrew Moses. On April 1, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, the Philharmonic's assistant conductor, leads the orchestra in the U.S. premiere of the Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Alpine Horns and Orchestra by Georg Friedrich Haas. On April 13, the orchestra and conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen join the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós in a concert that includes the world premiere of the young Danish composer Daníel Bjarnason's Violin Concerto.

Up the coast in Portland, percussionist Colin Currie starts his second year as artist-in-residence with the Oregon Symphony. Along with music director Carlos Kalmar, Currie performs the West Coast premiere of Andrew Norman's propulsive Switch Oct. 22. On March 11, the orchestra plays the world premiere of a work commissioned from Portland composer Kenji Bunch.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and music director Leonard Slatkin lead off their season Sept. 29 with the world premiere of Big Data by Ferran Cruixent, a Spanish composer known for blending acoustic instruments and technology. Jazz pianist Michel Camilo joins the DSO April 21 for the world premiere of his Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra, while on March 3 jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard debuts a new work exploring the 50th anniversary of historic unrest in Detroit in the summer of 1967.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premieres Australian composer Carl Vine's Five Hallucinations Oct. 6 with conductor James Gaffigan and CSO trombonist Michael Mulcahy as soloist. On March 9, Yo-Yo Ma joins the orchestra in the world premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Cello Concerto with the composer on the podium, then on June 15 Pulitzer-winning composer Melinda Wagner's Proceed, Moon gets its world premiere with guest conductor Susanna Mälkki.

The Alabama Symphony presents three world premieres. Matthew Aucoin's new Piano Concerto debuts Oct. 7 with soloist Conor Hanick, while the orchestra's composer-in-residence, Susan Botti, reveals a new piece Feb. 3. Carlos Izcaray, who starts his second season as the symphony's music director, also composes; a new piece, tentatively titled Yellowhammer (after Alabama's state bird), premieres May 5.

Jaap van Zweden, the next music director of the New York Philharmonic, will lead the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of Pulitzer winner Christopher Rouse's Fifth Symphony.

OPERA

A rendering of the set of David Lang's new opera the loser, which receives its world premiere Sept. 7 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Courtesy of BAM

David Lang's new one-act opera the loser headlines the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival on Sept. 7. Based on a novel by Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, the production is placed above the stage (with mezzanine-only seating) and stars baritone Rod Gilfry as a disillusioned piano student trapped in the shadow of his friend Glenn Gould. Pianist Conrad Tao and a chamber orchestra provide accompaniment from a distance.

The San Francisco Opera mounts the Sept. 10 world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber, a new work by Bright Sheng — with a libretto by Henry David Hwang (M. Butterfly) and the composer — based on one of China's iconic romantic novels.

On Sept. 22, Opera Philadelphia presents the world premiere of Breaking the Waves by Missy Mazzoli, with a libretto by Royce Varek. The chamber opera is based on the dramatically intense 1996 film of the same name by Lars von Trier.

A new project by composer Kevin Puts, who won a Pulitzer for his opera Silent Night, is focused on the iconic Southwest painter Georgia O'Keefe. Letters From Georgia, for soprano and orchestra, receives its world premiere Nov. 12 by Renée Fleming and the Eastman Philharmonia in Rochester, N.Y. Both Puts and Fleming are Eastman School of Music alums.

Versatile soprano, conductor and new music champion Barbara Hannigan sings the title role in the world premiere of Alice's Adventures Under Ground by Gerald Barry. The opera, based on the beloved Lewis Carroll books, receives its world premiere at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Nov. 22, with Thomas Adès conducting the LA Philharmonic New Music Group.

In 1903, New York's Metropolitan Opera produced an opera composed by a woman for the first time. They've never done another. That will change Dec. 1 as the Met mounts Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de loin, based on the story of a 12th-century troubadour and starring Eric Owens and Susanna Phillips, with conductor Susanna Mälkki.

Susanna Phillips and Eric Owens will star in Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de loin, the first opera composed by a woman produced at New York's Metropolitan Opera since 1903.

Kristian Schuller/Metropolitan Opera

Houston Grand Opera presents the world premiere of It's a Wonderful Life Dec. 2. The classic 1946 Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart gets a makeover by composer Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking, Moby Dick) and librettist Gene Scheer (Cold Mountain).

Mohammed Fairouz unveils a new hour-long opera, The Dictator's Wife, at Washington National Opera Jan. 13. The work, part of the company's American Opera Initiative Festival, is based on the play of the same title by Mohammed Hanif, who also wrote the opera's libretto.

The courtroom drama Voir Dire, adapted from true stories by composer Matthew Peterson and librettist Jason Zencka, receives its world premiere at Fort Worth Opera April 23.

The 2016 season of the Santa Fe Opera just closed, but eyes are already on next year, when the company debuts The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a new opera by Mason Bates with a libretto by Mark Campbell (Silent Night, The Manchurian Candidate), opening July 22.

CHAMBER

Composer Glenn Branca, known for his experimental works with guitars, unveils a new work dedicated to David Bowie on Oct 8. The Light (for David) receives its world premiere at Roulette in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Emerson String Quartet is entering its 40th season, and to celebrate, the group gives the New York premiere of a new piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage Oct. 23 at New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Also at CMSLC, cellist Alisa Weilerstein joins pianist Inon Barnatan and clarinetist Anthony McGill for the world premiere of a new trio by Joseph Hallman on Jan. 24. The society also has programmed a series of new music concerts at the Rose Studio, which include music by Steve Reich, Zhou Long, Kaija Saariaho and many others.

Jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (pictured) and rapper Kool A.D. will present the world premiere of their new chamber piece in St. Paul, Minn. in February.

Emra Islek

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music Series offers a number of debuts, including the world premiere of a new chamber music work by jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and rapper Kool A.D. on Feb. 15 in St. Paul, Minn. Sara Kirkland Snider's evocative multimedia song cycle Unremembered gets its U.S. premiere March 11, and includes singers Shara Nova (My Brightest Diamond), Padma Newsome and DM Stith with poetry and visuals by Nathaniel Bellows. The vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth unveils an "evening of sound explorations" in collaboration with Nick Zammuto on April 5.

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