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An Iraq War Opera Finds A Vein Of Empathy Listen· 5:59
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Heard on All Things Considered Actors onstage during a performance of Fallujah. The Long Beach Opera production is based on the combat experiences of a U.S. Marine in Iraq, and was co-written with an Iraqi-American.

Actors onstage during a performance of Fallujah. The Long Beach Opera production is based on the combat experiences of a U.S. Marine in Iraq, and was co-written with an Iraqi-American.

Keith Ian Polakoff/Long Beach Opera

Operas take on the grandest themes: love, violence, betrayal and battles. That's why Andreas Mitisek, the director of Long Beach Opera, became interested in staging a new opera set during the most recent Iraq war and its aftermath. This small, innovative company is known for site-specific work, so Mitisek decided to mount the world premiere of Fallujah at a National Guard Armory. A Humvee dominates the stage. The ushers wear military uniforms.

"Instead of sitting in a cushy theater and just being safe and going out for drinks, you are sitting on the floor of a drill hall where these people train to go to war," Mitisek explained shortly before a recent rehearsal in Long Beach. "So here, we're telling a story about their experience once they leave that hall."

Fallujah is based on the actual experiences of Christian Ellis, a trained opera singer who enlisted with the Marine Corps when he was 19 and became a machine gunner during Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the 2004 battle of Falljuah, his platoon was ambushed and he lost one of his best friends. An IED fractured his spine. Ellis returned home with severe PTSD.

"I gave up on life. I tried killing myself," he says quietly.

Ellis says he tried to commit suicide four times. He became homeless. Quite literally, he says, he forgot how to sing.

"I forgot what notes were," he says. "I forgot how to breathe."

But in 2008, Ellis was invited to a fly fishing retreat for soldiers with PTSD. There, he met philanthropist Charlie Annenberg Weingarten, who decided to commission an opera based on Ellis' experiences.

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Ellis' excitement soured a bit when he learned that an Iraqi-American had been hired to write the libretto. He flew to New York to meet Heather Raffo, whose acclaimed one-woman show Nine Parts of Desire had explored the experiences of Iraqi women after the first Gulf War.

"And she just had this way of calming me down naturally," he recalls. "Whether it was listening or asking the questions I didn't know how to answer but answered anyway."

Raffo and Ellis talked for days, sometimes for 10 hours at a time. I met the two of them, with composer Tobin Stokes, at a downtown Long Beach hotel room after an event at the local VA hospital. Singers had performed selections from the opera, and vet after vet had stood up to recount their own experiences. The three collaborators were still visibly moved by the experience.

As she prepared to write the libretto, Raffo interviewed dozens of veterans. She says hearing them talk about Iraqis and Iraq wasn't always easy, even given the context.

"It's brutal," she says. "It's brutal particularly right now, because almost all of my family is out of Iraq. It's not their home anymore: A hundred family members are down to four, and the rest are scattered all over the world. And I'm pissed."

I asked if Raffo had been apprehensive to hear stories about what the U.S. military had inflicted upon people who could have been her family. The playwright paused, and started to cry. Ellis immediately reached over to hold her hand.

"That was the hardest thing I had to do," Raffo says, her voice shaking. "I mean, spending a life in the theater, your job is to humanize."

But humanizing the U.S. military was just not something Raffo wanted to do.

"And then I knew that was wrong," she says. "I knew I had to. And I thought, this is my opportunity to be a better human being, and a better artist. And — to love."

The Long Walk, Brian Castner's memoir of PTSD and a difficult homecoming, will soon be an opera.

Deceptive Cadence

A Veteran's Piercing True Story Leaps From Page To Stage

Ethel performs its Documerica program, featuring photos from Environmental Protection Agency archives, and music by composers including Vietnam veteran Kimo Williams, at the Park Avenue Armory in 2012.

Deceptive Cadence

Tracing America's Biography In Music, From Coney Island To Vietnam

Tobin Stokes says that when he was brought in, he asked Ellis for the iPod playlist of songs he'd listened to while gearing up for combat. The challenge was to take music that, he says, had been used to obliterate emotion, instead use it to amplify emotions. Stokes also employed what he calls "a stylized Middle Eastern music" — not meant to be authentic, but rather to evoke local sounds as heard through the ears of the Marines.

Long Beach Opera also brought in a few actual former servicemembers to train the singers and influence the production design. Michael Hebert and Jon Harguindeguy are part of a program called Awaken Arts, designed to help people who've been through traumatic experiences. They contributed concept art to the production — and over many rehearsals, Hebert showed the singers how to move through space as soldiers would, and how to handle their stage weapons.

Hebert says that while he wasn't a huge opera fan before getting involved with Fallujah, now he loves it. And when I asked how it felt to be part of the opera, he corrected me: "It's a part of me," he said firmly. "I'm not a part of it. This is a part of me."

Baritone Lamarcus Miller told me he'd barely given a thought to the issues faced by US veterans before being cast as Fallujah's main character, Lance Corporal Philip Houston.

"Until I got the role, I was completely oblivious," he confesses. But now he thinks about veterans with PTSD all the time. "You know, I'll walk down the street and Phillip will come into my head and say, 'I could kill them.' Or, 'I could snap his neck. They're sheep.'"

For Christian Ellis, it isn't necessarily cathartic to have an opera made about his experiences at war. Getting any new opera staged is a long and excruciating process, and Ellis says much of it felt personal. Still, he's been steadily healing. He's even started singing again, with the men's chorus in Phoenix, Ariz., where he lives. And he says it was incredibly meaningful to meet the singers who play him and his buddies.

"I'm a Marine — a combat marine," he says. "Now, I want to say, 'I sing opera.'"

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This election season there's been a lot of talk about who and what are American. On Tuesday's edition of Stephen Colbert's Late Show, music replaced rhetoric in the form of Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, performed by members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

Copland wrote the piece in 1942 as a patriotic gesture during World War II. It was part of a larger commissioning project by Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conductor Eugene Goosens, who asked a variety of American composers to write fanfares. Copland scored his for brass and percussion. The tune ended up as a part of the composer's Third Symphony, completed four years later.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic stopped in New York to play music by Copland and young American composer Andrew Norman, as well as Mahler's Third Symphony as a part of its 2016 tour, which now heads to Amsterdam, Paris, Luxembourg and London.

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British composer Peter Maxwell Davies was Master of the Queen's Music from 2004-2014.

British composer Peter Maxwell Davies was Master of the Queen's Music from 2004-2014.

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Prolific and multifaceted British composer and conductor Peter Maxwell Davies died Monday at age 81 at his home in the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland. His death, from leukemia, was reported on the websites of both his publisher and his management company.

Called the "harlequin of British music" for more than five decades in a tribute by author Paul Griffiths, Maxwell Davies leaves a trove of varied works. Within some 300 pieces, there are 10 symphonies (hailed by the Times of London as "the most important symphonic cycle since Shostakovich"), concertos, operas, song cycles, chamber music of all kinds, ballets, choral pieces and music for children. His latest work, The Hogboon, an opera for children, will debut with the London Symphony Orchestra June 26. He'll be remembered for both his controversial, expressionistic early works and later, more lyrical pieces incorporating elements of folk music, such as An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a 1985 tone poem that features bagpipes.

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One of the composer's more recent concertos inspired by seascapes near his island home of Sanday, Orkney is Fiddler on the Shore, written for violinist Daniel Hope, who premiered the piece at the 2009 BBC Proms concerts with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

"His music had a romantic and yet robust expression, which was particularly endearing," Hope wrote in an email. "He was a great composer, a fine musician and a true gent. He also had an extremely wicked sense of humor and a way of looking at the world that was refreshingly original. He'll be greatly missed."

Maxwell Davies was born Sept. 8, 1934 in Salford, just outside Manchester. Composing seemed to come naturally for him. He wrote his first pieces in 1942 while still learning to play the piano. Later he studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, Princeton University and Manchester University, where he helped form a coterie of like-minded composers interested in the latest serial techniques — including Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr — known as the New Music Manchester group.

With a keen ear on the popular modernists of the times, such as Pierre Boulez, Maxwell Davies was also deeply influenced by the masters of the past, especially choral music from the English Renaissance. In 1962 he began in earnest the composing of his opera Taverner, inspired by 16th-century composer John Taverner. The music and ideas in the opera folded back on themselves and triggered a period of "parody and distortion" in his music, as Griffiths describes it.

At this time Maxwell Davies was beginning to earn his first important commissions, including one for the popular Proms concert series in London. He was also finishing up his directorship of music at the Cirencester Grammar School, initiating his longstanding dedication to music education in Britain.

Not everyone took the composer's music to heart, at least right away. As reported by the BBC, people shouted "rubbish" at the 1969 premiere of his music-theater work Eight Songs for a Mad King. And earlier today in an email Griffiths recalled attending the debut of the composer's Worldes Blis: Motet for Orchestra, which inspired much of the audience to walk out in protest.

The year 1971 marked a turning point in the composer's music, coinciding with his move to the austere landscapes of the Orkney Islands. Maxwell Davies began writing music in a more relaxed vein, inspired by his surroundings, in pieces such as the song cycle Stone Litany, the chamber symphony A Mirror of Whitening Light and the solo piano piece Farewell to Stromness, part of The Yellow Cake Revue, a musical protest in cabaret form against uranium mining in the Orkney Islands.

Maxwell Davies was showered with honors, including knighthood in 1987. In 2004 he was appointed Master of the Queen's Music, a 10-year position, and in 2014 he was made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honor. The composer also thrived as a conductor, and held positions with the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic. He regularly led top orchestras around the world, and for 20 years directed his own chamber ensemble, Fires of London.

Although he lived in a solitary place, Maxwell Davies believed composers should interact with society at large. It was a belief, Griffiths writes, that "took him from working as a school music master when he was in his mid-twenties to serving as Master of the Queen's Music through his seventies. Answering an evident need, wherever it came from, he could compose a musical play for young children or a birthday ode for the monarch with the same care and relish he brought to a string quartet or an opera."

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08Kyrie after Byrd
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    Upheld by Stillness
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    2016

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Singers in the newly formed vocal group ORA perform music old and brand new.

Singers in the newly formed vocal group ORA perform music old and brand new.

Nick Rutter/Courtesy of the artists

You might call it old wine in new bottles, but what sweet, masterfully crafted wine it is. Upheld by Stillness, the debut album by the young and vibrant British a cappella choir ORA, presents a contemporary twist on a 16th-century classic.

Songs We Love.

Songs We Love

The group, founded in 2014 by Artistic Director Suzi Digby, asked a handful of today's choral composers to create a musical response to William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices, an intricate, richly scored polyphonic work popular with choirs around the world. Each composer took inspiration from one of the five movements of the Mass, while Byrd's original (written around 1595) forms the centerpiece of the album.

Roxanna Panufnik (daughter of the late Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik) chose Byrd's Kyrie, the traditional mass opener which pleads for God's mercy ("Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison").

Beginning and ending in hushed reverence, Panufnik's version slowly blooms in contemporary harmonies. Voices interweave in dusky colors, pierced by strands of white light from the upper ranges of ORA's beautifully blended sopranos. Two minutes in, the piece pauses on a lovely drone from the basses, before the vocal engine chugs back up to speed — ominous and inevitable.

Upheld by Stillness is out now on Harmonia Mundi.

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The late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, rehearsing in Salzburg, Austria in 2012.

The late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, rehearsing in Salzburg, Austria in 2012.

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Widely influential conductor and early-music specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt has died at age 86 in the Austrian village of St. Georgen im Attergau, near Salzburg.

His wife, Alice Harnoncourt, announced his death on his website; the cause of death was not disclosed. Harnoncourt had announced his retirement Dec. 5 — the day before his 86th birthday — in a handwritten letter published on his website and included in the program book of the Vienna Musikverein concert hall, where he appeared frequently.

Harnoncourt was born in 1929 in Berlin into a wealthy, aristocratic family. His full name was Count Nikolaus de la Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt; his father was an Austrian count and his maternal great-grandfather was a Habsburg archduke. From the time Harnoncourt was a toddler, his family lived in the Meran Palace in Graz, Austria. With the Nazi annexation of the country, the family's security grew more precarious, and in 1944 they moved to the Salzkammergut area, where the young Harnoncourt began playing cello. By 1948, he moved to Vienna to study cello more seriously. It was there, at the Vienna Music Academy, that Harnoncourt founded his first early music ensemble — the Vienna Viola da Gamba Quartet, which included his wife-to-be, Alice Hoffelner.

Harnoncourt did not graduate from the conservatory. Instead, in 1952, he left shortly before his final exams to accept a position playing in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, remaining until 1969.

Alongside Harnoncourt's work with this mainstream orchestra, his interest in pre-Baroque music increased. In 1954, he and his wife formed a group to perform the first notable opera ever written, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. (That performance was conducted by composer Paul Hindemith, another artist fascinated by early music.) By 1957, their ensemble had a name: the Concentus Musicus Wien. With that group's founding, Harnoncourt became one of the fathers of the early music movement, which sought to bring pre-Baroque and Baroque compositions back into regular performance, played in ways they might have been heard when they were new.

In an essay on Harnoncourt's website, his interest in early music is presented as the direct inverse of the aesthetics and perhaps even cultural politics of artists like Karajan:

His 1982 book Musik als Klangrede (Music as Speech) was the first to comprehensively describe the theory of historically informed performance practice. He emphasises again and again that when making music every idea must develop from original sources. He demands that his musicians be ready to discuss, that they ask questions; indeed, he expects objections. This is what automatically makes him the antithesis of the traditional conductor who never justifies his decisions to the "lower orchestra musicians," but rather enforces his will autocratically. The figurehead of this stance is Herbert von Karajan, whose "kingdom," the Salzburg Festival, was the epitome of established society events in the eighties, and which celebrated art as a kind of High Mass for the financially elite.

There was a similar motivation at work in Harnoncourt's decision to evolve from his work as a cellist to his calling as a conductor, as he told NPR's Performance Today in 2006. Speaking of his years playing in the Vienna Symphony, he said, "I played with all the great conductors, I played the whole classical repertoire and practically everything which was newly composed in that time."

"But in the last years of that time," he continued, "we had to play the last symphonies of Mozart very, very often, especially the G minor Symphony (No. 40), which is a very tragic and at the same time consoling piece. And when this piece was played, the audience started to smile, and to wave their heads. It was a familiar situation — which I hated, I must say. And when I saw them all starting to smile for this music which speaks of death, I was absolutely sure that we were doing everything wrong by performing this symphony. And there was one day when I said, 'I don't want ever to play that again in that way.' And the next morning, I went to the director and said, 'I will quit the orchestra; I have to do it myself.' It wasn't easy, because I was a young man with four children, and I had nothing in view — and nobody taught me to conduct."

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By the early 1970s, Harnoncourt was conducting performances of Monteverdi's operas at venues like the Piccola Scala in Milan; in 1975, he presented the first staged cycles of Monteverdi's three extant operas at the Zurich Opera House. It was also during this time he began a landmark project with his collaborator Gustav Leonhardt: recording all of J.S. Bach's known sacred cantatas, about 200 of them, in historically informed performances that featured lean groups of musicians and singers and boy soloists. It was an undertaking that required enormous scholarship as well as immense effort, resulting in 45 double-LP albums recorded over nearly 20 years.

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As Harnoncourt's reputation for early music continued to grow, he was encouraged to reach into material beyond the Baroque. In 1980, the Zurich Opera House hired him to stage all of Mozart's operas. As time went on, Harnoncourt began to explore larger and larger swaths of the repertoire, from works of Beethoven to music by Dvorák, Bartók and Alban Berg. As a conductor, Harnoncourt was particularly interested in creating highly detailed and often astringently bracing performances — the same qualities he had brought to his work with Bach and Mozart.

Harnoncourt's recording of a certain 20th-century opera seemed to come out of left field, at least until one heard the story of the conductor's longtime connection to it. When he was still a child, his New York-based uncle, René d'Harnoncourt (who was director of the Museum of Modern Art from 1949 to 1968), sent his family a vocal score of an opera written by a friend of his. It was George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

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Has 'An American In Paris' Been Honking Up The Wrong Key? Listen· 3:57
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Heard on All Things Considered NPR Staff George Gershwin's beloved An American In Paris features the sounds of taxi horns — but a musicologist argues we've been using the wrong ones.

George Gershwin's beloved An American In Paris features the sounds of taxi horns — but a musicologist argues we've been using the wrong ones.

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George Gershwin wrote An American in Paris after visiting Paris in 1928. The orchestral piece tells the story of an American swept up in the energy of Paris, but thinking of the jazz back home. It's still such a popular piece that old-timey taxi horns Gershwin calls for in the score are rented by orchestras all over the country.

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Musicologist Mark Clague of the University of Michigan is editing a critical edition of George and Ira Gershwin's music. When Clague looked back at the original score and a very early recording of An American in Paris, he made a discovery: We've been using the wrong taxi horns for 70 years.

Clague says that the way Gershwin notated the percussion line in the composition's score may to be blame for the confusion. While he put the letters A, B, C and D over the occurrences of the horns, he never clarified what that notation meant — leading people to assume that he meant the musical pitches A, B, C and D. But after listening to a 1929 recording of the piece — billed as "with George Gershwin" — Clague realized that wasn't what Gershwin intended.

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According to Clague, there's actually a good deal of ambiguity in the score; he thinks it may be tied to the fact that Gershwin wrote in several styles.

"I think it has a lot to do with sort of George's own sort of movement from the popular sphere to the classical sphere," Clague says, "And the different attitudes about what musical notation is. Is it a kind of road map, or is it sort of the gospel truth? He had to adjust to that, and I think in certain ways he just didn't need to explain it, because he was going to be there to tell people what to do."

Clague spoke to NPR about how these different horns affect the overall sound of An American in Paris. You can hear more at the audio link.

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On Helene Grimaud's New Album, 'Water' Is A Metaphor And Motivation Listen· 6:01
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Heard on All Things Considered NPR Staff Helene Grimaud's new album, Water, is inspired by environmental activism and the sheer number of compositions dedicated to water.

Helene Grimaud's new album, Water, is inspired by environmental activism and the sheer number of compositions dedicated to water.

Matt Hennek/Courtesy of the artist

When Franz Liszt wrote The Fountains of the Villa d'Este, he added a Latin quotation from the Gospel of St. John. It says: "But the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into eternal life." That composition is featured on the newest album by French pianist Helene Grimaud, called Water.

Because that's the theme of the album: The pieces she plays are all, somehow, connected to water. Like Luciano Berio's piece Wasserklavier, or "Water Piano." In between the pieces that Grimaud plays on piano — all unaccompanied — there are are transitions composed by Nitin Sawhney, a British Indian musician and producer.

Grimaud joined NPR's Robert Siegel to talk about the inspiration behind the project and the best way to listen to it. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read their conversation below.

How do you describe your intent, the intent behind this project, Water?

It started, I have to say, simply because of the beauty of this repertoire. There are so many pieces written in the name of water, and with water in mind, as a source of inspiration. But the idea was to also bring it to the forefront of our consciousness as not only a source of inspiration but as a source of life. And not only as a metaphor but as a molecule, which stands for rebirth and regeneration. And if you look at the statistics today they're absolutely scary. One child dies every 90 seconds from a disease contracted by consuming impure water. You know, it's a musical exploration but hopefully also an artistic invitation to a prise de conscience, we say in French, some greater ecological awareness.

For you, what's the difference between creating an album that is so strongly thematic and say, recording an album that's two great Beethoven pieces or two great Brahms concertos?

[Laughs.] It's a very good question. There is no difference. I mean, they're both equally important and intense. And yes, the conceptual nature of this album made it a particularly wonderful and stimulating adventure. You know, for me, they're all babies I cherish equally, so there is no hierarchy based on the experimental nature of a more conceptual project.

One fact of making an album like this is that the album — the selections, the transitions between them — is the form of presentation. That's how we hear this. And yet we live in an age of shuffle mode, and different songs coming to us in all sorts of different orders. In a way, the challenge you face is: Will people just listen to your disc through, start to finish?

I certainly hope they will because it is a journey and you have to give that journey a chance. This is very subtle, very fragile, vulnerable music and you need to give it a chance to develop. It's not a program that makes a strong statement from the get-go, so you need to let it take you by the hand. But you have to be open-minded, openhearted for that.

Now it can be certainly consumed in any way; I mean, the beauty of these pieces is that they are so fantastic that they stand alone. At the same time, I would find it a shame if one didn't experience the journey from beginning to end, with that overarching structure and line running through.

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Composer and Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Stucky, who died Feb. 14.

Composer and Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Stucky, who died Feb. 14.

Hoebermann Studio/Courtesy of the artist

The classical music community has marked two sad passings of major composers this month: first the death of 93-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner Leslie Bassett on Feb. 4, and now the untimely death of another Pulitzer winner, Steven Stucky, one of the most widely admired and collegial figures in modern music.

The composer's wife, Kristen Stucky, said in a statement that he had been diagnosed with a fast-moving brain cancer in November, and that he died at their home in Ithaca, N.Y. on Feb. 14.

Whether he was writing for orchestra, vocal ensembles, solo musicians or chamber groups, Stucky balanced his taut constructions with a richly pigmented palette.

In 2005, Stucky won the Pulitzer Prize for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, and was also the winner of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, among many other honors. Along with his work as a composer and academic, he was also a well-regarded conductor and author who won the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for distinguished music writing for his 1981 book Lutoslawski and His Music.

Stucky was born Nov. 7, 1949, in Hutchinson, Kan., and spent his childhood in Kansas and Texas. He studied at Texas' Baylor University before attending Cornell University in Ithaca, where he earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts in composition in 1978. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1980 and taught there for 34 years. In 2014, he retired from Cornell and was named an emeritus professor there; the same year, he joined the faculty of The Juilliard School to teach composition. He was also composer-in-residence at the summertime Aspen Music Festival and School.

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Stucky was very active in several organizations dedicated to promoting the work of contemporary composers, including New Music USA, the American Academy in Rome, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He had an extraordinarily long and fruitful relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 1988, the ensemble's then-music director, André Previn, named him the orchestra's composer-in-residence. Stucky went on to work with the orchestra for more than two decades, including as their consulting composer for new music during the tenure of music director and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, with whom he worked closely in commissioning new music, programming contemporary music, and in such outreach efforts as founding the LA Philharmonic's fellowship program for composers still in high school.

In more recent years, Stucky joined the New York Philharmonic to host their Hear & Now contemporary music series. In addition, he was commissioned to write music for many major American orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Two recordings of Stucky's music won Grammy Awards: a recording by the San Francisco-based vocal group Chanticleer in 1999 that included his vocal pieces Cradle Songs and, in 2008, a recording by pianist Gloria Cheng that included Stucky's solo piano pieces Four Album Leaves and Three Little Variations for David. His 2012 oratorio August 4, 1964, which was commissioned from him and librettist Gene Sheer by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, received a Grammy nomination for Contemporary Classical Composition.

Ojai Music Festival YouTube

Stucky delighted in making engaging, smart music. His first opera, The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts), was a collaboration with pianist and writer Jeremy Denk that premiered at California's Ojai Music Festival in 2014. As theater and opera director Simon Williams wrote in an Opera News magazine review, "The Classical Style is a free-ranging, often bizarre fantasy in which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, ensconced in boredom in Heaven, become panicked by reports of a decline of interest in classical music on Earth and a perception that human audiences find their music stale ... The opera is hugely entertaining, not least because Steven Stucky is a parodist of genius whose knowledge of the language of classical music over the past 250 years is astoundingly detailed and seemingly infinite."

Stucky was a generous-spirited composer who truly relished working side-by-side with musicians, as he told this writer in a 2012 interview for the New York Philharmonic, when the orchestra gave the East Coast premiere of his Symphony, a piece co-commissioned with the LA Philharmonic. "The first encounter with a piece as it's performed is an amazing thing," he said then. "Of course, I know how the symphony goes — but what I won't know until the premieres is how the piece feels. I have to relearn the piece as an outsider — the emotional life of the piece just doesn't exist until you're outside it."

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A Fearless Soprano's Case For Contemporary Music Listen· 5:21
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Heard on Weekend Edition Saturday Soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan has performed more than 80 world premieres.

Soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan has performed more than 80 world premieres.

Elmer de Haas/Courtesy of the artist

Squeamish about contemporary classical music? Meet Barbara Hannigan. With more than 80 world premieres to her credit, she has a knack for making modern music sound effortless and approachable. The intrepid soprano is unafraid to outfit herself as a dominatrix or a schoolgirl while singing, conducting and acting — all at the same time.

Hannigan has been the go-to singer for many top composers, from George Benjamin and Gerald Barry today to Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti and Henri Dutilleux. She's also a favorite of conductors, like the Berlin Philharmonic's Simon Rattle. During the filming of a documentary released last year about Hannigan, Rattle reminded the director just whom they were dealing with.

"You tend to forget what an extraordinary musician this is," Rattle said. "You can ask her basically anything. She's fearless and she has technique and brains to burn. So, we're just lucky to have her on the same planet at the same time."

Hannigan began her life on this planet in a tiny town in Nova Scotia. Around the house she heard her mother play arrangements of Handel's Water Music on the piano. There were albums by John Denver and The Carpenters. At 17, she says, she moved to Toronto to study.

"And when I was 19," Hannigan says, "I remember the 'aha moment' that I knew that I was going to devote a large part of my life to the music of our time. I realized that the passion that I felt when I was singing new music — I thought at first everyone felt like that."

They don't. Even some of Hannigan's fellow musicians don't know quite what to make of her.

"I remember the first time I sang with the Berlin Philharmonic," Hannigan says. "The woodwind section came to me after the rehearsal and they said, 'You're like a strange bird that we've never heard before.'"

YouTube

Hannigan convinced the Berlin Philharmonic to commission a new song cycle, let me tell you, by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. The piece won the 2016 Grawemeyer Award.

Before Abrahamsen wrote a single note, Hannigan gave him a four-hour crash course in the history of vocal music. "She gave me a lesson in how to write for voice," he says. "She told me about how to use the vowels and she showed me some characteristics of her voice. And somehow I found a language for music." Months later, he sent her what he had written.

"I just started to weep because I couldn't believe that he got it," Hannigan recalls. He got it and he got me, he got my voice."

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

Deceptive Cadence

Hans Abrahamsen Wins The Grawemeyer Award For Music

One special quality of her voice that Abrahamsen says he exploited is its otherworldly high register: "It's most clear in the very last song where she comes in on a high C from nothing and comes out of the orchestra and goes down."

Hannigan is singing let me tell you this weekend with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons, who conducted the premier recording, released last month. He says Hannigan's voice is so versatile it can fool you.

"It's a huge range of things she does," Nelsons says. "And the sounds and the colors she makes with the voice, sometime you can't tell what instrument is playing. Is it a voice? Is it a kind of instrumental, mystic kind of sound?"

Many sounds emanate from Hannigan when she performs Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre, one of her signature pieces. The music, drawn from Ligeti's opera Le Grande Macabre, may sound thorny, but Hannigan has made it popular with audiences. She draws them in by dressing up to play the part of a paranoid police inspector, while at the same time singing and conducting the work from memory.

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"It's about a control freak, and so the first while that I was performing it I had this kind of dominatrix outfit," she says. "Recently, I did another costume in London which became kind of a hit on YouTube. Dramatically, emotionally, intellectually, there was just everything I wanted to be challenged by in that piece."

And Hannigan loves challenges. It's like a sense of duty for her. "I have an obligation," she says. "Because it is not only satisfying to me but it also serves the composers and serves the music. And they need it."

She'll sing another world premiere this fall when the Los Angeles Philharmonic produces a new opera by Barry, Alice's Adventures Under Ground. And this spring she conducts and sings music by Berg, Haydn and Stravinsky in Sweden and Germany. But beyond her new music mission, there's also a practical side to the 44-year-old.

"We all know that singers have a 'best before' date stamped on their forehead, you know we can't sing forever," she says. "Eventually, I will lose elasticity and I will lose the beauty of sound. I've got another good 10 years, I would say. But I can conduct forever, until I'm an old woman on the podium. I think it's a very exciting future ahead."

Listeners on both sides of the podium might agree.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.
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13The Man I Love
  • Buy Featured Music

    Song
    The Man I Love
    Album
    Solo
    Artist
    Nicholas McCarthy
    Label
    Warner Classics
    Released
    2015

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Born without his right hand, Nicholas McCarthy pursued a career as a concert pianist.

Born without his right hand, Nicholas McCarthy pursued a career as a concert pianist.

Paul Marc Mitchell/Warner Classics

Nicholas McCarthy was born without his right hand. Pursuing the piano would not exactly appear to be the most intuitive career choice. And yet that is exactly what the 26-year-old British pianist has done. His debut album, Solo, will be released next week.

McCarthy's "Aha!" piano moment came relatively late, at age 14, after he heard a friend play Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata. In a flash, he saw his future. He was determined to become a concert pianist.

Songs We Love.

Songs We Love

It's not surprising to learn there were a few potholes in the road ahead. At first McCarthy was self-taught, then some professional lessons which led to a fateful phone call. As McCarthy explained in his TEDx talk, at London's Royal Albert Hall, he sought an audition at a specialist music school. The headmistress curtly explained she couldn't understand how he could play the piano and hung up on him. The snub stung, but it energized McCarthy, who set his sights higher. He showed up for an audition at the Guildhall School in London, without warning them of his disability. He was accepted. Later he moved over to the Royal College of Music, where he graduated in 2012 as the first one-handed pianist in the institution's 130 year history.

It was there McCarthy was introduced to the surprisingly rich trove of piano music composed for left hand only. Benjamin Britten, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev and Paul Hindemith, among other composers, wrote pieces for Paul Wittgenstein, the Austrian pianist who lost his right arm in World War I. "If it wasn't for Paul Wittgenstein," McCarthy told his TEDx audience, "I wouldn't have a career today." Plenty of able-bodied pianists also play this repertoire, but McCarthy is one of the few truly one-handed professionals.

McCarthy chose music by Scriabin, Chopin and Liszt for the new album, but also an expressive Etude by the late American pianist Earl Wild, an arrangement of the Gershwins' song, "The Man I Love."

McCarthy's interpretation is filled with the optimism of a young man at the dawn of his career. (A contrasting, but equally viable, rendition by the octogenarian Leon Fleisher is achingly bittersweet.) He caresses the melody — and its ornamental filigree — in what would normally be the right hand. The descending arpeggios, in what would be the left hand, create a marvelous illusion of ten fingers on the keyboard.

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