Trumpeter Rolf Smedvig, of the Empire Brass Quintet, was acclaimed for his lustrous tone and virtuosity.
Trumpeter Rolf Smedvig, praised for his beautiful tone and virtuosic style, died Monday afternoon at his home in West Stockbridge, Mass. The cause of death, according to his long-time manager Mark Z. Alpert, was a heart attack. Smedvig was 62.
Perhaps best known as one of the founding members of the widely acclaimed Empire Brass Quintet, Smedvig enjoyed a busy career as a soloist with major orchestras, including those in Boston, Chicago and Cincinnati. In 1973, the 19-year-old Smedvig was hired as assistant principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony by music director Seiji Ozawa. Smedvig, then the youngest member of the orchestra, moved up to principal trumpet in 1979.
Smedvig, who described himself onstage as "a little immigrant boy from Norway and Iceland," was born in Seattle and made his debut with the Seattle Symphony at age 13. He later studied at Boston University and with famed trumpeter Maurice André. Smedvig was still a student at Tanglewood in 1971 when Leonard Bernstein chose him as a soloist in the world premiere of Mass, composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
Smedvig was also active as a conductor, appearing as a guest with the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich in addition to other ensembles worldwide. He served as a decade as music director of the Williamsport Symphony in Pennsylvania. Fascinated by music education and the mechanics of the trumpet, Smedvig served as a clinician for Conn-Selmer, the corporate parent of the Bach brass instrument line.
With dazzling technique, Smedvig exuded a confident swagger in his playing, leading Fanfare Magazine to describe his performances as "as absolutely spectacular with hair-trigger control and high-wire acrobatics aplenty."
The trumpeter was not without his critics. He incited accusations of sexism after a 1991 incident in which he questioned the performance of three young women in a Boston University masterclass on the basis of their gender.
"You came out there and it looked like you had your doily dress on and you were going to tiptoe through the tulips, you know, and play this," the Boston Globe quoted Smedvig as saying. "You can't do that when you have a trumpet in your hands." He apologized in a public forum two weeks later, and eventually the French horn player of the Empire Brass was a woman, Michelle Perry.
Smedvig, with the Empire Brass, was prolific in the recording studio with albums of music ranging from Gabrieli and Mozart to Broadway arrangements, Celtic and Christmas recordings. The group was also active on the road, touring in 35 countries and making television appearances on the Today Show and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Smedvig is survived by four children and his wife, also a musician.
All Things Considered
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Philip Glass photographed in New York City in 1980.
by Philip Glass
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It was 1964 when the young Philip Glass found himself in Paris. He was on a Fulbright scholarship to study with the revered pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. It was a career move carefully planned. Glass wanted to be a composer and he knew Boulanger's rigorous lessons in traditional Western harmony and counterpoint would sharpen his skills. But a completely unplanned event in Paris led Glass to discover a very different kind of music — music that would influence his life and his compositions.
"The door to world music for me was opened by Ravi Shankar," Glass tells NPR's Arun Rath, who spoke with the composer about his new memoir, Words Without Music. In Paris, through a series of chance encounters, Glass became Shankar's assistant, learning to notate Indian music the sitar master was composing for a film, Chappaqua. Before they met, Glass says, he knew practically nothing about music from India.
"I had never heard any," Glass recalls. "I went out and I bought a record of Indian classical music and I couldn't make heads or tails of it." But soon the music would make a deep impression on Glass, sparking a lifelong interest in music from other cultures.
"India was the first place," Glass says, "but in the course of time I've worked with musicians from Africa, from all parts of South America, from Australia, from China, from Tibet. Those encounters were the most stimulating parts of my music education. There were no books that would prepare me for those kinds of things. I was really on my own. Finding my way into other people's music was a way of learning about music. And of course it had an impact on the way I compose music. It became the engine of change for me."
By throwing himself into music of other cultures, Glass also became attracted to their spiritual traditions.
"What they all have in common — and we're talking about the Taoist tradition of China, or the Shinto traditions of Japan, what you find in the indigenous people in Australia — is that they are not us," Glass says. "I was taught to see the world in a certain way because that is what I learned. That is what every culture does. Our description of the world is beaten into our heads when we are children. And to get out of that is very difficult. I found out that the Tibetan description was different, the Taoist was different, the aboriginal Australian was different. And I became, I would say, an addict of that kind of thing."
Glass says one of the reasons he's written so much music in his life was that he met so many interesting people all over the world. But where does the music really come from? It's a question the young Philip Glass once asked Ravi Shankar.
"I said to him, 'Raviji, where does music come from?' He turned to a table by his bedside and there was a picture of an Indian gentleman in what we would call a Nehru coat. He did a complete bowing down to the picture and said, 'By the grace of my guru the music has come through him to me.' And I thought that was as good an answer as you're ever going to get."
Glass' current view of the question, one that students have asked him about, reflects his fascination with the world and its people. "Music is a place," he told them. "As real as Chicago or New Delhi."
It's not literally a place, Glass says, "but when you write music you go there."
Weekend Edition Saturday
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Roomful of Teeth's new album is Render, out April 28.
The vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth consists of eight classically trained singers incorporating Tuvan throat singing, Appalachian yodeling, operatic trills, rhythmic exhalations and whispered speech into music written by some of the most exciting young composers of the 21st century.
Roomful of Teeth's Grammy-winning debut album topped the classical charts, and their work has been praised by the New York Times and Pitchfork. Now they're releasing a new album, Render.
Artistic director Brad Wells has emphasized that the group is a band, not a choir. That's something that's gotten him into trouble with a lot of his friends in the choral world, he says. Still, he holds firmly to the notion.
"In a choral setting," Wells says, "typically you have at the very least three or four altos, three or four tenors, and you're going for a rich, clean blend in each section. And this group is about not single colors or single unifying blends, but almost the opposite: juxtaposing the individual colors of the voices in the group."
Tiny Desk Concert with Roomful Of Teeth October 6, 2014.
The title of Render embodies that approach for founding member and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw.
"For me, it's the idea of seeing distinct particles slowly come together and create an image — that's what video rendering is," she says. "And I think our next journey through this second album, and beyond, is to see how our distinct voices come together and keep creating new music."
NPR's Scott Simon talked with Wells and Shaw about Render, the inspiration for the title composition and how the group develops novel vocabularies for making music. Hear the entire conversation at the audio link.
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On the Bang on a Can All-Stars' new album, Field Recordings, composers riff on a range of recorded sounds.
Life changed a lot after that day in 1877 when Thomas Edison spoke "Mary had a little lamb" into a contraption he called a phonograph and discovered he could reproduce sound. Back then, tinfoil cylinders captured just a few flickering moments. Today Wagner's entire Ring cycle fits on a 16GB flash drive.
Recorded sound is all around us. It's also the inspiration for Field Recordings, the latest album by the new-music collective Bang on a Can All-Stars (released May 12). The ensemble, London's Barbican Centre and more than 200 other donors collaborated on commissioning composers to write works inspired by, and in dialogue with, existing pieces of recorded sound for an ongoing multimedia performance project.
For An Open Cage, composer and bassist Florent Ghys was drawn to a recording of John Cage reading an excerpt from his own Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).
A solo bass mimics the rhythm of Cage's silky speech patterns, lending a jaunty bounce to his deadpan delivery. My favorite line, proving Cage's humor, is: "I'm gradually learning how to take care of myself. It has taken a long time. It seems to me that when I die, I'll be in perfect condition." As instrumental forces grow, they gradually overtake Cage. A small chorus of voices appears, superseding the instruments, then recedes to give Cage the last word.
Don't let the high concept fool you — Ghys' song sports a funky beat. Edison, if he could hear it, would probably tap his toes.
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Metropolitan Opera Chorus Master Donald Palumbo says a lot of his job is making sure singers with very different voices blend together. Here he works on Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet.
Metropolitan Opera Chorus Master Donald Palumbo knows voices, and how to instruct singers to protect them.
Palumbo says that all singers have to monitor their voices while rehearsing during the day. The goal, he says, is to insure singers are at their "freshest" and "most solid" for the evening performance.
"It's important that there's absolutely no compromise on your vocal strength or sheen in the voice by the time you get to the performance in the evening," Palumbo tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Everyone has to be at their peak vocal condition as late as midnight for each performance of Meistersinger, which is how long they usually run," he says. The Met performed Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in December.
Palumbo is responsible for rehearsing and conducting some of the best singers in the world. He's renowned for his ability to blend the voices of the singers in the chorus.
"The job of preparing Meistersinger is to take that many singers, 150 singers, and get them to sound like one voice," he says. "Of course, the big difficulty with Meistersinger is where do you put 150 people on stage? A lot of my job is in trying to get the chorus to sing in a situation on a stage with special problems — in other words, huge distances to the conductor, distance between the chorus and the orchestra and the audience. And it's somehow finding a way to get a lot of people to act as one."
Palumbo became the Met's chorus master in the 2007-2008 season. Before that, he was the chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He was the first American to serve as chorus director of the Salzburg Festival.
And, surprisingly, Palumbo doesn't have any formal conservatory training.
"I readily admit that I never really had much formal training other than piano lessons that I never practiced for," Palumbo says. "I was a very poor piano student. ... What I did, though, is I went to as many performances as I could and I listened carefully and I would take scores out of the library and I would take records out of the library and I'd sit and listen and follow scores and try to soak up as much as I could."
Donald Palumbo became the Met's chorus master in the 2007-2008 season. He sang in choruses all his life, he says, and eventually worked his way up without any formal conservatory training.
On how singers often "mark" in rehearsals to save their voices for performance
It's a term that means you indicate what you want to with your voice, but you don't use the full volume, you don't use the full body tension and energy that you need to exert when you're actually in performance mode. The danger with marking is that when you pull back a little bit on the energy [while] singing, what usually tends to happen is musically things can also get a little lazy or a little sloppy, so you have to be very careful that when you mark you don't destroy any of the musical exactness that you've been working on so hard in all of the rehearsals. But, singers definitely have to mark.
On singing vowels
Soloists can get away with "ah" vowels and "ee" vowels that have different degrees of brightness and spread, so to speak, in the vowel. My job as a chorus master is to try to get every chorus singer to take an "ah" vowel and interpret it in the same way, in other words, so that the roundness and the height of the "ah" is uniform across the chorus. ... A soloist can pick and choose how he uses these vowels at any given moment in a performance. He can even find, for example, if he was having maybe a little trouble and needs to modify certain vowels at any given moment, he can do that because he's singing on his own. In the chorus, we have to make sure that everybody adheres at all times to this same shape of every vowel.
On breath control
The sustaining of a note, the release of a note, the intake of the breath and the attack of the next note, should be one process that doesn't have any stop/start. It should feel like it's on a revolve. It should never feel like tone, stop, gasp, produce a tone. With a chorus you have the advantage that you can do something called stagger breathing, which means if you have a very long phrase and you want to make sure that you get to the end of the phrase with the same full support that you had when you started the phrase, you can have people decide to interrupt say, a syllable, or to take a little we call it a "catch breath" somewhere in the phrase that is not going to be done at the exact same spot by everyone else in the chorus. So the overall effect of that is that the chorus is not breathing where actually everybody has taken a breath.
On who the choristers are
What's happened lately is many of the choristers are young soloists who have decided for whatever reason that they are ready to maybe give up the life of trying to make a living as a soloist with all of the difficulties, the travel, the lack of guaranteed income on any given year. [Also] the fact that they can't spend time with their family as much as they'd like to, some [are] just saying, "I don't have this in me to be a soloist and to really fight as hard as I need to. ... I would love to continue to be a musician, but find some outlet for my talent where I can have a more stable life." ...
It's a very difficult profession to really have success. The number of people who become superstars is just such a minute fraction of the number of singers that are out there trying to make a living. So this is a great job for great singers to experience enormous musical pleasure. I always insist that everybody feel that they're being musical at all times when they sing in the chorus. So it doesn't become just the job of making a large sound to fill a big theater. No, we make sure that we have a musical identity of our own and so everyone feels fulfilled as a musician individually.
On a curtain malfunction during a performance
There was a performance of Meistersinger when we made the transition from the first scene of the third act into the second scene. ... And there was a problem with a piece of scenery and so the curtain could not go out on this scene change. And the chorus is on stage and we start singing. Of course, it was Maestro [James] Levine conducting and, of course, he was in the pit and could see that we had a problem here. He just kept going. I think he could hear some of the chorus singing from behind the curtain. ...
The chorus was behind the curtain and the curtain could not open. And it lasted for I want to say close to a minute, I think, that we actually sang the opening of that big scene from behind the curtain. Then finally [the curtain] went out and the audience applauded. ...
We were exactly together with the orchestra while the curtain was in ... [but] as soon [it] went out ... all of a sudden now we were hearing the orchestra from its natural position in the pit without the curtain there. So ... the acoustical feeling onstage suddenly changed ... [and] we had a momentary ensemble problem, just because of the change of what we were hearing. ... That was a scary moment, I have to say.
On pursuing his career without formal conservatory training
I sang in choruses all my life. I lived in Europe for three years. I actually sang in choruses with [Austrian conductors] Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm and people like that and I used those experiences as my classroom. I really treated those experiences as a chorister as almost lessons. And so when I then came back after being in Europe and started playing in voice studios — that was another way of learning without being in a conservatory. And then, every time I had the opportunity to do something — say, play rehearsals for a small opera company or prepare a small chorus for a regional opera company — I just said, "Yes, I'll be glad to do that." Very slowly, I started working my way through more important companies. ... I think I was able to use experience versus conservatory training as a way to become a better musician.
Music director and conductor Marin Alsop leads the orchestra at the Cabrillo Festival, which has championed new music for 53 seasons.
Now that the weather, at least in much of the country, has turned from polar to pollen vortex, it's time to start mapping out musical road trips. This year bodes well for exploring contemporary work. There are new-music meccas like California's Cabrillo, where all the music is current. At other festivals, like New York's Mostly Mozart, the classics mingle with the contemporary — this year spotlights 55-year-old British composer George Benjamin. And still others, like the Bard Festival, offer rare glimpses into forward-thinking composers from the mid-20th century. There's a little something for all tastes in this shortlist of summer fests featuring new music.
ASPEN MUSIC FESTIVAL AND SCHOOL, July 2-Aug. 23, Aspen, Colo.
The new music highlight this season is the world premiere of the fully staged production of The Classical Style, an opera by composer Steven Stucky with libretto by pianist Jeremy Denk (July 30, Aug. 1). The cerebrally comedic drama is inspired by the 1971 scholarly tome of the same name by pianist Charles Rosen, which examines the composing styles of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, each of whom appears in the opera. The one-act opera The Cows of Apollo (or the Invention of Music) by Christopher Theofanidis shares the bill. Robert Spano conducts.
BARD MUSIC FESTIVAL, Aug. 7-9, 13-16, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Each year this enterprising festival focuses on a single composer. This year, it's a full immersion into the music, life and times of Mexican composer Carlos Chavez, an indefatigable ambassador for modern Latin American composers in the first half of the 20th century. Chavez's orchestral music is explored beside that of such contemporaries as Silvestre Revueltas and Heitor Villa-Lobos (Aug. 15) and chamber music is featured, along with commentary by festival co-director Leon Botstein (Aug. 7).
BRAVO! VAIL, July 1-Aug. 6, Vail, Colo.
The virtuosic vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth's first album, filled with new compositions and commissions, won a Grammy last year. The eight singers will perform some of that music, including Teeth member Caroline Shaw's Pulitzer-winning Partita (Aug. 4), pieces from their new album (Aug. 5) and a new work by Wally Gunn (Aug. 6) in concerts that include the impressive Attacca String Quartet. (Watch Roomful of Teeth play a Tiny Desk Concert.)
CABRILLO FESTIVAL, Aug. 7-16, Santa Cruz, Calif.
Not surprisingly, it's another embarrassment of riches from the 53-year-old festival dedicated solely to contemporary orchestral music. There's the U.S. premiere of James McMillan's Percussion Concerto with soloist Colin Currie and the West Coast premiere of Mason Bates' Anthology of Fantastic Zoology (Aug. 7). Festival director Marin Alsop leads the world premiere of Eating Flowers by Hanna Lash, plus Philip Glass' Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, with Tim Fain and Matt Haimovitz, and Nico Muhly's Wish You Were Here (Aug. 15). This year's festival lines up no fewer than 12 composers-in-residence, including Muhly, Lash, Missy Mazzoli, Huang Ruo and David T. Little.
CASTLETON FESTIVAL, July 2-Aug. 2, Rappahannock County, Va.
The late Lorin Maazel's summertime festival argues its case for new music with the world premiere of Derrick Wang's opera Scalia/Ginsburg (July 11, 17, 19), a comedy based on U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. Ginsburg will be on hand to share her love of law and opera in a lecture and performance featuring Castleton students (July 11).
LINCOLN CENTER FESTIVAL July 6-Aug. 2, New York City
Although it's decades old, the unpredictable music of American outsider composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) still sounds absolutely fresh. Partch is in the spotlight as director Heiner Goebbels and Ensemble Musikfabrik present his last large-scale work, Delusion of the Fury (July 23, 24). Also, vocalist and percussionist David Moss recreates part of Partch's diary Bitter Music, an account of the composer's days as a hobo in the mid 1930s (July 23).
MOSTLY MOZART, July 25-Aug. 22, Lincoln Center, New York City
Here's a chance to luxuriate in the music of George Benjamin, considered one of the most accomplished composers of his generation. The 55-year-old London native is the composer-in-residence at Mostly Mozart. His gripping opera Written on Skin, starring the irrepressible Barbara Hannigan and conducted by New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert, receives its U.S. stage premiere (Aug. 11, 13, 15). The composer's one-act opera Into the Little Hill is also staged (Aug. 16) and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard offers a recital including Benjamin's Shadowlines (Aug. 17).
MUSIC ACADEMY OF THE WEST, June 15-Aug. 8, Santa Barbara, Calif.
Orchestral and chamber music options abound at this year's festival. Osmo Vänskä conducts fellow Finn Kalevi Aho's Geija (Chinese Images for Orchestra) (July 11) and Larry Rachleff leads Mason Bates' Ode (June 20). The JACK Quartet plays Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw's Ritornello 2.sq.2.j (July 20) and the group joins pianist Thomas Adés in a performance of the brilliant British composer's own Piano Quintet (July 21). And the Takacs Quartet will be on hand to play a work it premiered in April, Carter Pann's String Quartet No. 2, "Operas" (June 16).
SANTA FE OPERA, July 3-Aug. 9, Santa Fe, N.M.
With nine world premieres and 40 American premieres behind it, the Santa Fe Opera has made a strong case for new music since 1957. This year, the company offers the world premiere of Pulitzer winner Jenifer Higdon's first opera Cold Mountain (Aug. 1-22). Based on Charles Frazier's best-selling historical novel, the opera stars Nathan Gunn and Isabel Leonard. Higdon told us last fall that she has been carrying the opera's characters with her for about two and a half years. "I've been pretty absent from the present day world for some time," she said. "That type of concentrated creativity has been amazing to experience."
SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA, May 22-June 7, Charleston, S.C.
A flurry of new and modern music blows through the Charleston-based festival this year, including the world premiere of Huang Ruo's opera Paradise Interrupted. The Westminster Choir sings David Lang's 2008 Pulitzer-winning The Little Match Girl Passion (May 30-31), while the mechanistic orchestral score for the Bill Morrison film Decasia, by Lang's Bang on a Can cohort Michael Gordon, is performed live with the movie (June 1). Also, Tan Dun's Concerto for Orchestra — a piece for what the composer calls the "Orchestra of the Future" — is included on a Spoleto Festival Orchestra concert (May 26).
WOLF TRAP OPERA, June 12-Aug.7, Vienna, Va.
In case you missed the LA Opera's revival earlier this year of John Corigliano's brilliant The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), you can head to Vienna, Virginia for a more intimate production. The characters from Rossini's Barber of Seville and Mozart's Marriage of Figaro do their best to entertain the ghost of Marie Antoinette at the Barns at Wolf Trap (July 10-18).
More Festivals Featuring Contemporary Music:
Britt Music & Arts Festival: July 31-Aug. 15World premiere of a new song cycle by Aoife O'Donovan and pieces by John Adams and his son Samuel Carl Adams.
Glimmerglass Festival: July 10-Aug. 23Premiere of the children's opera Odyssey by Ben Moore.
Grand Teton Music Festival: July 1-Aug. 15The orchestral work Too Hot Toccata by Aaron Jay Kernis.
La Jolla Summerfest: Aug. 5-28New commissions from Peter Schickele and Derek Bermel.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis: May 23-June 28A new production of Tobias Picker's superb Emmeline.
Rockport Chamber Music Festival: June 5-Aug. 9U.S. premiere of The Seafarer by Sally Beamish, plus her piano trio arrangement of Debussy's La mer.
Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival: July 19-Aug. 24Marc-André Hamelin plays Yehudi Wyner's Toward the Center and Alan Gilbert conducts Olivier Messiaen's From the Canyons to the Stars.
Virginia Arts Festival: April 10-May 30The Attacca String Quartet plays the String Quartet No. 2 by Chris Rogerson.
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