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Deceptive Cadence : NPR
Deceptive Cadence un-stuffs the world of classical music, which is both fusty and ferociously alive.
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In Fort Worth Opera's 'JFK,' A Tension Between Joy And Tragedy Listen· 5:49
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Heard on Weekend Edition Saturday Daniela Mack and Matthew Worth star as First Lady and President Kennedy in a new show at the Fort Worth Opera, JFK.

Daniela Mack and Matthew Worth star as First Lady and President Kennedy in a new show at the Fort Worth Opera, JFK.

Nine Photography/Forth Worth Opera

Fort Worth Opera director Darren K. Woods was looking for a Fort Worth story to mark the company's 70th anniversary. Someone mentioned that they thought President Kennedy spent his last night in the city.

"And I went, 'Everybody would know that if that happened,'" he says. "So we Googled it and boy: There it was."

The opera that resulted is named JFK, and its world premiere is tonight in Fort Worth, Texas. It tells the story of President John F. Kennedy's last night with his wife, Jacqueline, before he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. But the opera is not what you might expect: It mixes intimate views of the couple's optimistic trip to Texas with dark hints of what we know will happen.

Woods asked librettist Royce Vavrek if he'd be interested in working on the project. Vavrek remembers his excitement at the idea.

"I remember running home and telling David that this was something I thought we could do are really, really well," Vavrek says.

"David" is composer David T. Little. He and Vavrek are based in New York. Both are in their 30s, and are rising stars in the opera scene. Their post-apocalyptic opera Dog Days landed on a number of critics' top 10 lists in 2012.

For inspiration for their latest collaboration, Vavrek and Little retraced Kennedy's steps in Fort Worth.

"I remember coming to this room, looking out these magnificent tall windows," Vavrek says, describing the presidential suite of what was the Hotel Texas, now the Fort Worth Hilton.

When the audience first sees Jackie in JFK, she's staring out that window, while the president soaks his notoriously bad back in the tub. Jackie injects him with morphine to numb the pain; he sleeps, and a series of drug-induced dreams and hallucinations follow. He meets his future wife for the first time.

Baritone Matthew Worth sings President Kennedy. He says he was enamored of the opera from the beginning. "The first day we sang it in workshop, we looked over at Royce and at David and said, 'Guys, this is just stunning,'" Worth says. "It still stays that way all this time later."

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The original hotel suite where the Kennedys stayed that night was decorated with valuable artworks loaned by Fort Worth collectors. The painting Swimming, by Thomas Eakins, now hangs in the city's Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Little says it gave him some ideas.

"There was a kind of free association for us that started with these paintings, as the things that were surrounding the Kennedys in their suite," Little says. "You know: Would this remind Jack of Hyannisport? And sort of extrapolating from that — the Sea of Serenity on the moon, which is such a part of his presidency. In a way, they were part of a brainstorming process that helped us to construct us the broader frame for the story we were going to tell." Hyannisport and the moon both end up in this opera.

Throughout the show, there is a chorus: three Greek fates, Vavrek explains. They determine birth, life and death. The librettist says ancient myths have long been elements of grand opera, but here, he flips the convention.

"We took the myth of JFK and we really attempted to make him mortal," Vavrek says. "What were those conversations that he had with Jackie in the privacy of this suite? What are those, just, intimate things that we all deal with, that we could make him not a legend — we could make him a real personable figure."

They can only guess at what those conversations were. But Little says the team that produced JFK wants the audience to feel that tension between joy and impending tragedy.

"It's really about this affirmation of life," Little says, "because we know of the death that is imminent."

That's why President Kennedy sings of the sun shining the morning in Fort Worth before he and his wife leave. Sunny enough, he sings, to the leave the car top down.

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Yehudi Menuhin's Potent Blend Of Music, Humanism And Politics Listen· 5:26
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Heard on All Things Considered Yehudi Menuhin, born 100 years ago, was far more than a violin virtuoso.

Yehudi Menuhin, born 100 years ago, was far more than a violin virtuoso.

Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

One hundred years ago, a musician was born who took the world by storm, both with his violin and with his warmhearted humanity. Yehudi Menuhin was born April 22, 1916, in the Bronx to Russian immigrants. He began his career as an astounding child prodigy in velvet knee pants. But two men who knew him well — documentary filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon and violinist Daniel Hope — maintain that as Menuhin grew older, he turned out to be far more than just another virtuoso.

First off, one shouldn't forget just what a virtuoso the young Menuhin was. By the time he made his first recordings, at age 11, he was already a star. He had made his Paris debut, played Carnegie Hall twice and commanded concert fees as large as $10,000. Critics were using words like "The Violinist of the Century." At 16, Menuhin was at Abbey Road Studios to record Edward Elgar's violin concerto with the composer conducting. The recording, an instant classic, has never been out of print.

"He was the most celebrated infant prodigy in history, together with Mozart," Monsaingeon says.

Monsaingeon made several documentaries about the violinist and wrote a 250-page book for The Menuhin Century, a new 80-CD, 11-DVD Menuhin box set. It was Menuhin's sound that inspired Monsaingeon to pick up the violin.

The same goes for Hope. "Menuhin was definitely the reason that I became a violinist; there's no doubt about that," he says. Hope's mother was Menuhin's secretary, and Hope spent most of his childhood in Menhuin's home listening to him play.

"The sound has so many layers to it," Hope says. "It's as if it hugs you. And it was ginormous, and yet it had a kind of anguish and a pain to it, which is highly emotional at the same time."

Mentoring young musicians became a mission for Menuhin, as he told NPR in 1992. "I feel that music is a birthright, as much as air and water and food," he said. "I would love to see the day begin in every school with children singing and dancing."

Menuhin made the 16-year-old Hope an offer: to tour with him for 10 years. That's when Hope discovered another side of Menuhin.

Yehudi Menuhin: A Life In 10 Pictures

  • In the summer of 1927, Menuhin began studying with famed Romanian composer and violinist Georges Enescu. Hide caption In the summer of 1927, Menuhin began studying with famed Romanian composer and violinist Georges Enescu. Previous Next Warner Classics
  • In 1932, at age 16, Menuhin recorded Edward Elgar's violin concerto at London's Abbey Road Studios with the composer conducting. An instant classic, the recording has never been out of print. Hide caption In 1932, at age 16, Menuhin recorded Edward Elgar's violin concerto at London's Abbey Road Studios with the composer conducting. An instant classic, the recording has never been out of print. Previous Next Warner Classics
  • Menuhin's sister Hephzibah, also a prodigy, became the violinist's frequent musical partner onstage and in the recording studio. Hide caption Menuhin's sister Hephzibah, also a prodigy, became the violinist's frequent musical partner onstage and in the recording studio. Previous Next Warner Classics
  • During World War II, Menuhin played hundreds of concerts for Allied troops in hospitals and near the front lines. Hide caption During World War II, Menuhin played hundreds of concerts for Allied troops in hospitals and near the front lines. Previous Next Warner Classics
  • Right after the war, Menuhin shocked his fans and Jewish groups by supporting and performing with famed German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was accused of having ties to the Nazi regime. Hide caption Right after the war, Menuhin shocked his fans and Jewish groups by supporting and performing with famed German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was accused of having ties to the Nazi regime. Previous Next Warner Classics
  • In 1952, Menuhin traveled to India, where he met Ravi Shankar (second from left). The two men recorded three albums together and became lifelong friends. Hide caption In 1952, Menuhin traveled to India, where he met Ravi Shankar (second from left). The two men recorded three albums together and became lifelong friends. Previous Next Warner Classics
  • In 1978, Menuhin performed in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem to mark the Camp David agreement. Beginning with his first concerts in Israel in 1950, Menuhin squabbled with the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians. Hide caption In 1978, Menuhin performed in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem to mark the Camp David agreement. Beginning with his first concerts in Israel in 1950, Menuhin squabbled with the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians. Previous Next Warner Classics
  • Menuhin also dabbled in jazz, making a number of recordings with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli from 1975 to 1981. Hide caption Menuhin also dabbled in jazz, making a number of recordings with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli from 1975 to 1981. Previous Next Warner Classics
  • Later in Menuhin's career, as his bowing technique began to fail, he turned to conducting. He was appointed head of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1982. Hide caption Later in Menuhin's career, as his bowing technique began to fail, he turned to conducting. He was appointed head of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1982. Previous Next Warner Classics

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"We had life-changing conversations about everything from music to humanism to politics," Hope recalls. "He was very vocal in his disgust of racism and of intolerance in general, and he believed passionately that musicians had to stand up for what they believe in."

And Menuhin practiced what he preached. He practically put his career on hold in the 1940s, playing hundreds of concerts for Allied troops in hospitals and near the front lines. With composer and pianist Benjamin Britten, he played for displaced people at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp just after it was liberated. Monsaingeon says Menuhin's heart was broken by what he saw.

"The contact with human suffering made him a different man," Monsaingeon says. "I think one can hear that in his playing. The [Schubert] 'Ave Maria' he would always play, he said to me, as a kind of prayer for those who might not return."

Right after the war, Menuhin, a Jew, shocked the worlds of music and politics when he performed with Wilhelm Furtwängler. The German conductor had remained at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic during the war and was accused of having ties with the Nazi regime. That Menuhin sought Furtwängler out and made recordings with him was a prime example, Hope says, of Menuhin the bridge builder.

"His view on that particular time was that we've been through enough of this horrendous hatred and now it's time to rethink and now it's time to come together again," Hope says. "And it was a radical decision on his part to say, 'I'm extending the hand of friendship.' "

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Violinist Daniel Hope provides running commentary on a passage from the opening movement of Edward Elgar's violin concerto, recorded by Yehudi Menuhin at age 16.

Menuhin Play-By-Play Listen· 1:45
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Menuhin later squabbled with a number of governments and politicians. He gave a cunning, and moving, speech to the Israeli Knesset about the treatment of Palestinians. He gave impromptu concerts for poor South Africans under apartheid and disrupted a session in that country's Parliament.

In 1952, Menuhin traveled to India, where he studied yoga with B.K.S. Iyengar, a man he would later introduce to the rest of the world. Hope says that throughout Menuhin's final concert tour he could be found practicing yoga in his dressing room. Also in India, Monsaingeon says, Menuhin acquired a strong taste for Indian music.

"He heard Ravi Shankar for the first time and was fascinated," Monsaingeon says. "He brought Shankar, immediately, in his wake, to Europe and made those famous recordings of Indian music." Before the Beatles became interested in Indian music, Menuhin introduced it to England's Bath Festival in 1959.

Shankar and Menuhin made three albums together and became close friends. After Menuhin's death, in 1999, Shankar told NPR that one of the keys to understanding Menuhin was his self-effacing personality.

"His humility," Shankar said, "I have never seen in any Western musicians and hardly even in Indian musicians, believe me."

Menuhin needed a little humility when later in his career his bowing technique began to fail. Little by little, he took up conducting. But Monsaingeon says that even after Menuhin stopped playing the violin, you could still hear the instrument in his performances as a conductor.

"The Schubert symphonies have something special in that you can hear Menuhin's violin sound in an orchestra," Monsaingeon explains. "It's something which is really unbelievable because lots of people considered that he was no conductor."

Hope, who witnessed Menuhin conducting on many occasions, says that he led orchestras through the strength of his musicianship. "If he had an ensemble of musicians who were willing to work, there could be spectacular results." Menuhin was appointed head of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1982.

With a school, an academy, a festival and a violin competition created under his guidance, and his devotion to health food, world affairs, electric cars and humanitarian charities, Yehudi Menuhin turned out to be many things. But first and foremost, Hope says, Menuhin was a generous human being.

"Menuhin was so much more than just a violinist," Hope insists. "He was a passionate believer in being a better person and making a better world." And the way to do that, Menuhin said, was to reach out to people.

"One has to have the hunger for communication, for giving," Menuhin said. "One has to have a sense of compassion."

That's exactly what pours out in Menuhin's music.

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24Behold
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    2016

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Musicians from the French ensembles Dedalus and Muzzix have recreated an album by Moondog, originally released in 1971.

Musicians from the French ensembles Dedalus and Muzzix have recreated an album by Moondog, originally released in 1971.

Christian Mathieu/Courtesy of the artists

With his long beard, homemade horned helmet, flowing cloak and spear, he was known as the Viking of Sixth Avenue. He was born Louis Thomas Hardin in Marysville, Kan. in 1916 and later called himself Moondog. At 16, he was blinded while fiddling with a blasting cap.

Songs We Love.

Songs We Love

For nearly 30 years, beginning in the 1940s, Moondog was perhaps the most intriguing, and talented, street denizen of New York. Holding court on corners in Midtown, he performed for onlookers. He also recited his poetry, conversed with passersby and composed music at once fresh and timeless, evoking the spirit of jazz, Latin, pop and classical. He attracted the admiration, and in many cases the friendship, of major musicians — from Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein to Charles Mingus and Philip Glass, at whose apartment he crashed for a year. Janis Joplin even covered his song "All Is Loneliness."

Moondog (Louis T. Hardin) photographed standing outside CBS headquarters at West 53rd Street and 6th Avenue in New York on April 21, 1972.

Moondog (Louis T. Hardin) photographed standing outside CBS headquarters at West 53rd Street and 6th Avenue in New York on April 21, 1972.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

In 1971, Moondog released his second album for Columbia Masterworks, Moondog 2. That album is lovingly reimagined in its entirety on Moondog: Round The World Of Sound, a new release by the French new music ensembles Dedalus and Muzzix.

"Behold," a song from 1969, reveals several of Moondog's stronger influences. As a boy, he once visited the Arapaho reservation; it was on chief Yellow Calf's lap that he learned to pound out rhythms on a buffalo-skin drum. That insistent beat lays the foundation for a buoyant melody in the form of a canon, another of Moondog's obsessions and a significant nod to the baroque counterpoint of J.S. Bach. (Like Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, the sequence of two dozen songs on Moondog's album systematically moves through all the major and minor keys.)

"Behold the willow bows before me / but not the oak, I'm uprooting / remarked the wind." The lyrics and music come across as equal parts riddle and nursery rhyme. Perhaps that's appropriate for a man of mystery who struck many as a simplistic hobo. Beneath that Viking cape lived a true American maverick.

Moondog: Round The World Of Sound is out now on New World Records.

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Is Battle Fatigue Over? The Met Rehires A Banned Soprano
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A Feb. 8, 1994 New York Times headline reads: "The Met Drops Kathleen Battle, Citing 'Unprofessional Actions'."

A Times headline from Monday reads: "You're Unfired: Kathleen Battle Is Returning to the Met After 22 years."

The Metropolitan Opera announced yesterday that on Nov. 13, Battle will sing a program of spirituals called Kathleen Battle: Underground Railroad — A Spiritual Journey. She is also performing the program in Richmond, Ky. on Apr. 16 and in Toronto May 29.

For more than two decades, Battle has been as well known for her public dismissal as for her considerable artistry. Her voice, an agile, glimmering lyric soprano with touches of cream and smoke, was one of the most acclaimed in the opera world in the 1980s. The videos here give a sense of what was lost when the Grammy-winning singer got the ax.

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Temperamental divas have been around as long as opera has. In 1727, two rival sopranos in Handel's employ fought onstage — in front of the Princess of Wales, no less. And closer to our own time, the once-married team of soprano Angela Gheorghiu and tenor Roberto Alagna were dubbed by director Jonathan Miller the "Bonnie and Clyde of opera" for their tantrums and demands. Alanna walked off the stage at Milan's famed La Scala in 2006 during a season-opening performance of Aida after a series of boos from the audience.

But Battle seemed to take the pejorative connotations of the word diva to new extremes. Stories abound.

Like the time she got into a tiff with conductor Christian Thielemann, as the New York Times reported, and walked out of a Met rehearsal of Der Rosenkavalier in a huff. She threatened to quit if she didn't meet immediately with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Joseph Volpe; he didn't come to her dressing room and she didn't return to the production. In Boston, she reportedly banned musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from her rehearsals and left in what the Boston Globe described as "a froth of ill will."

"Kathleen Battle's unprofessional actions during rehearsals for the revival of La Fille du Regiment were profoundly detrimental to the artistic collaboration among all the cast members," Joseph Volpe said in a statement at the time of her firing. "I could not allow the quality of the performance to be jeopardized." When the cast was informed, they reportedly cheered.

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After Battle was fired, the New York Times reports her as saying, "I was not told by anyone at the Met about any unprofessional actions." As of then, she was essentially banned from the opera business, although she continued to give recitals.

"My sense is that Battle had a whole constellation of problems," says Washington Post Classical Music Critic Anne Midgette. "The firing was one symptom." Midgette calls it a decisive turning point in the soprano's career.

But what does this new development — that Battle will sing a recital of spirituals at the Met — mean for the 67-year-old singer?

"Depending on how it goes," Midgette says, "the new Met announcement will signal to the world that she's employable," though as a different type of soprano. "This is obviously a whole new stage of her vocal life."

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Cellist, conductor — and alleged billionaire — Sergei Roldugin (left) with Vladimir Putin at Russia's St. Petersburg Music House in 2009.

Cellist, conductor — and alleged billionaire — Sergei Roldugin (left) with Vladimir Putin at Russia's St. Petersburg Music House in 2009.

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In 2014, Sergei Roldugin told the New York Times, "I don't have millions."

But if the document trail of the Panama Papers proves correct, this Russian cellist and conductor — and a close friend of Vladimir Putin since the 1970s — may actually possess much more than that.

People in Reykjavik gather Monday to demonstrate against Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, Iceland's prime minister. Gunnlaugsson insisted he would not resign after leaked documents allegedly linked him to an offshore company that could represent a serious conflict of interest.

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According to reporting from the consortium of 370 international journalists from over 100 news organizations working on the data leak of more than 11 million documents in what's become known as the Panama Papers, Roldugin — or at least his name — is at the center of a network in which up to $2 billion from Russian state banks has been hidden in offshore shell companies.

In the wake of this massive document leak, a pair of articles centering on Roldugin have been published by the Guardian in the U.K. and a nonprofit investigative journalism organization based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina called the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (the OCCRP), which focuses on the regions between Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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In their reports, the Guardian's Luke Harding and three OCCRP journalists, Roman Anin, Olesya Shmagun and Dmitry Velikovksiy, claim that Roldugin — godfather to Putin's first child, Maria Putina — is at the epicenter of the alleged Russian arrangement, whose activities came to light as part of the data dump from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

The Guardian sets the value of these transactions at $1 billion; the OCCRP journalists mention Roldugin-related deals regarding offshore accounts and state-controlled banks worth at least $2 billion.

Now 64 years old, Roldugin has taken a prominent role in Russian cultural life. According to his biography on the site of the St. Petersburg Music House, a state-sponsored classical music organization whose primary aim is to prepare young musicians for international competition, Roldugin "insisted" on a full restoration of the school's home, the 19th-century Alexis Palace, a former residence of the Russian grand duke Alexei Alexandrovich.

Conductor Valery Gergiev, who turns 60 today.

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A winner of the People's Artist of Russia prize, Roldugin also serves as a juror of the highly prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition for music, and is a former rector of the St. Petersburg State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory.

In 1984, Roldugin was named as the first soloist and principal cellist of Russia's premier international orchestra, the Mariinsky Orchestra — an organization led by another close artistic ally of Vladimir Putin, Valery Gergiev. Since then, Roldugin has risen to become one of the Mariinsky's guest conductors.

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Young Musicians Blossom In Baltimore's OrchKids Program Listen· 6:37
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Heard on Weekend Edition Saturday Asia Palmer, now a high-school freshman at the Baltimore School for the Arts, has been with the OrchKids program since it began in 2008.

Asia Palmer, now a high-school freshman at the Baltimore School for the Arts, has been with the OrchKids program since it began in 2008.

Ned Wharton

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 100th birthday earlier this year. In a performance of Ravel's Boléro, the orchestra presented a few members of a new generation of players eager to take the music into a new century. They were members of the BSO's OrchKids program, onstage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to play right alongside regular orchestra musicians.

Marin Alsop is a regular commentator on NPR; she's also the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a founding director of OrchKids. The program was launched in 2008 with just 30 children from inner-city backgrounds. Now, there are more than a thousand students in the program.

But the maestra says playing music professionally is not the goal of OrchKids.

"That will just be sort of a fringe benefit," she says. "That's not the point. I think the point is that music becomes this vehicle for experiencing and envisioning themselves with lives filled with possibility. When you walk into Lockerman Bundy [Elementary School] and you hear these kids, and you meet them — I mean, it's all about possibility."

Dan Trahey is the OrchKids artistic director. He says the program can fill many needs.

"It's funny," he says, "because for one person I'll say this is a music program. For the next person, I'll say it's a social program. Even within a family, it might be a musical program for one of their kids, and for the other three, it's completely a social program. And what I mean by that is that a child can get a refinement on their instrument and be immersed in the musical culture without having to be a premier violinist."

Trahey also believes the program has a positive impact on the students' academic records.

"We have a rigorous assessment that tells us that," he says. "We also have found that kids that immerse themselves in OrchKids show up to school more often."

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Asia Palmer is currently a freshman at the Baltimore School for the Arts; she was also one of the more than 100 students from OrchKids and the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra who took part in the Boléro performance in Februrary. Palmer was a student at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in 2008, when the OrchKids program was just starting there. She says the program has helped her get to where she is today.

"If I hadn't started the program, I wouldn't be at my school now," she says. "And I really do enjoy my school. And I wouldn't have had the opportunity to play the flute."

Students get fitted for violins at Downer Elementary School in San Pablo, Calif. The school offers a free music program called Sound Minds.

NPR Ed

A Symphony's Big Challenge: Lift A Tough School Through Music

Elham Fanoos playing at the Hunter College commencement.

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Palmer's mother, Lynette Fields, is a community coordinator for OrchKids. She says working with OrchKids has shown her the benefits of the program that go beyond music education.

"I go on the trips with the kids," she says. "I serve snacks, and the dinner for the kids — because they get dinner before they leave in the evening. After being here all day long like that, I think it's good that we supply the dinner for them, because some of the kids may not get a full dinner when they go home in the evening."

Thirteen-year-old tuba player Keith Flemming is another OrchKids member who performed with the BSO. At the performance, he addressed the audience about the role OrchKids has played in his life.

"When I was younger, I had no musical experience," he said. "I didn't want to connect with people, and I didn't want to learn. Now I want to absorb more information every day, and OrchKids has taught me that."

Speaking with NPR's Scott Simon, Flemming elaborated on what the program has meant to him.

"I used to be bad, really bad, and some teachers would kick me out of the class," he says. "And then I wouldn't be able to learn stuff, I'd be in the hallway sitting down. But when I joined OrchKids, I seen that when I learned, I can do more in life."

He says OrchKids has helped him develop some goals for the future, too.

"In the future, I want to start OrchKids programs around the world," he says. "I want to still play tuba, but I want to change kids' lives like my life has changed."

His says his favorite tuba solo right now is "Suite For Tuba" by Don Haddad.

Alsop says she sees the same passion in the OrchKids performers as she sees in the musicians at the Baltimore Symphony; she saw it in the performance of Ravel's Boléro in February.

"When the audience leapt to their feet after the performance, I am not sure there was a dry eye in the house," she says. "It was really exciting, but it also felt like an extension of this great Symphony Orchestra out into the community, to the next generations to the communities that are underserved. It just felt like there couldn't be a better place on the planet to be at that moment."

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After his First Symphony flopped, Sergei Rachmaninoff briefly switched careers. A London critic wrote,

After his First Symphony flopped, Sergei Rachmaninoff briefly switched careers. A London critic wrote, "It was such a spectacle as has rarely been seen anywhere in the Empire."

Photo illustration by Jeff Curnow/Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

Editor's note on April 4, 2016: You may have figured this out already — this story was an April Fools' joke. It's not real. We hope you enjoyed it.

Listen to Sergei Rachmaninoff's sweeping, luxuriantly Romantic music — his Second Symphony, his Second Piano Concerto — and it's hard to imagine that this towering figure of 20th century music ever had a crisis of confidence. But he did, a well-documented three-year fallow period after the dismal premiere of his First Symphony, during which he performed little and wrote even less.

New scholarship has discovered a fascinating chapter in the life of the multitalented musician and a fresh set of answers to the perplexing questions of his youthful artistic decline and revival. According to a team of researchers at Harbeson University in Delaware, Rachmaninoff's mid-20s were spent not in semi-seclusion at a series of dachas, as his biographers have claimed, but on the well-trod boards of English music halls, where he performed some of the era's most amazing feats of strength. It was only a clash with a powerful London promoter that caused Rachmaninoff, born on this day in 1873, to return to his piano and music desk for good.

"We've always known Rachmaninoff's music was a force of nature," says Harbeson University professor of musicology Lilly Swift. "It appears now that in his circus work he also understood the nature of force."

The young Rachmaninoff's athleticism was no secret. During his studies at the Moscow Conservatory, the teen would follow a strict daily regimen: a 4 a.m. breakfast of raw eggs followed by a run up the steppes. It was during these workouts that he conceived the melody for one of his most enduring early songs, "V etot mahment ya pahlechoo" (In this Moment I Will Fly).

Rachmaninoff (top) briefly joined a troupe of travelling Japanese acrobats.

Rachmaninoff (top) briefly joined a troupe of travelling Japanese acrobats.

Photo illustration by Jeff Curnow/Wikimedia Commons//Library of Congress

He seemed poised to become one of classical music's great sportsmen, in the league of Charles Ives (who pitched his high school baseball team to a win against Yale) and Percy Grainger (who would often as not walk between engagements in various cities). But as Rachmaninoff's studies intensified, he shifted his focus exclusively to music, finishing his First Piano Concerto at age 18 and his First Symphony four years later, with an opera, Aleko, in between.

Then came 1897, and the premiere of the First Symphony, which the composer and critic Cesar Cui called "a program symphony on the Seven Plagues of Egypt." Rachmaninoff was devastated, though modern scholars believe the disastrous performance to be the work of a drunk conductor. Whatever the case, the budding composer fell silent and turned primarily to his own conducting.

Here conventional narratives continue with a string of performances at the Moscow Private Russian Opera. But recently unearthed troves of Soviet-era research, including letters and photographs, reveal that while Rachmaninoff was leading the Private Opera, he was also pursuing an entirely separate public career abroad.

During a guest conducting engagement with the Philharmonic Society of London, he took in performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at D'Oyly Carte's Opera Company and more middlebrow light entertainment as well. At a holiday pantomime, or panto, he met a producer and promoter, Desmond Stevenson Edward Wray, who was thrilled to learn not only of Rachmaninoff's pianism but also his youthful athletic exploits. Wray quickly set about creating a vaudeville act around the young man he billed as Rock Mannenough.

The combination of musicality, musculature, grace (honed by conducting) and an alluring Russian scowl proved catnip to audiences. Wray's production was unsurpassed, and Rachmaninoff headlined with a trampoline act that included men, women, horses, actual fire and often more than nine consecutive somersaults.

But the climax of each evening was what Rachmaninoff and Wray called "Crossing the Styx." Rachmaninoff would collect two, three or even four spectators onstage and lift them onto his shoulders. Then, as the pit orchestra played an ominous melody, he would lunge toward the audience. A half step toward them, then a half step back upstage. One and a half steps down, a step back. As tension mounted, two full steps down, then a step back and a final stomp — all without dropping the terrified men, women and children clinging on for dear life. Audiences went wild.

To ward off depression after the failure of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff took to weightlifting.

To ward off depression after the failure of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff took to weightlifting.

Photo illustration by Jeff Curnow/Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

"It was such a spectacle as has rarely been seen anywhere in the Empire," wrote the drama critic of the London Daily Packet. "The combination of the funereal, hymnlike melody, the wild-eyed fear of the spectators held aloft and the unwavering gaze of the Russian strongman convulsed onlookers in a mixture of fear, awe, and, ultimately, relief and appreciation." In some shows, Rachmaninoff would carry the audience members back to their seats, in a routine called "The Aisle of the Dead."

"There was nothing else like it and no one else like him," Swift says. "His impact, though uncredited, is still felt today. You can see it in modern dance companies like Pilobolus but also in competitive cheerleading, professional wrestling and synchronized weightlifting."

Yet it was not to last. The generosity of his fans restored Rachmaninoff's confidence in his musical life as well, spurring him to compose with renewed initiative and inventiveness. He also missed Russia. He especially longed for the food of his homeland — the warm borscht, cold borscht, unfiltered borscht and his favorite delicacy, pierogies a la Queensbury, dumplings filled with shredded beef from carcasses pounded by boxers in training.

But the final straw was money. Rachmaninoff discovered Wray had been pocketing more than his own share of the profits, leaving Rachmaninoff with barely enough money to secure passage home. As the budding young composer, pianist, conductor and recording artist wrote to his family, "I had to leave London. That D.S.E. Wray was going to be the death of me."

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Opera And Jazz Mingle In 'Charlie Parker's Yardbird' Listen· 5:21
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Heard on All Things Considered Tenor Lawrence Brownlee plays the title role in the new opera Charlie Parker's Yardbird.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee plays the title role in the new opera Charlie Parker's Yardbird.

Dominic Mercier/Opera Philadelphia

You often don't think of opera at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Tonight that changes: Charlie Parker's Yardbird gets its New York premiere there. It's an opera about the jazz saxophonist on the very stage where Parker played in his lifetime.

The opera's Swiss-born composer Daniel Schnyder is a jazz saxophone player himself, who is also classically trained. He wants to combine his two favorite kinds of music.

"These two things are far apart from each other," Schnyder says, "and a lot of people think that doesn't work together, but that's not true. It's actually a big chance to create something new."

Schnyder was commissioned by Opera Philadelphia to compose a work for tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a rising star in the opera world who's made his reputation singing in the 19th-century bel canto style.

"Bel canto is a kind of virtuoso art form," Schnyder says, "where you have to sing very fast and very high, and you have to have a very flexible voice. And then we had a meeting, and I met Larry and that just came to my mind — that he would be the perfect Charlie Parker."

Brownlee leapt at the chance to portray the influential jazz musician, one of the founders of bebop, who died at the age of 34 after a lifelong battle with substance abuse. Brownlee says he had to learn how to use his voice like a jazz instrument.

"With jazz musicians, they use the extremes of the instrument," Brownlee says, "from very high to very low, fast, loud, soft, and to really explore every possible color of an instrument. And so, for me, in this process with Charlie Parker, it was about exploring those things. I have to sing really high, really low, as loud — my loud, my version of loud — and soft and all the things in between."

And he has to scat sing. Schnyder's music for Yardbird is not only jazz-inflected. He has taken bits of Parker's own music and embedded it in the score.

"When he says, 'Now's the time to write the piece,'" Schnyder explains, "then, actually I'm using a part of the composition 'Now's the Time,' that's something that he wrote."

The libretto for the opera is by Bridgette Wimberly, a Harlem-based poet and playwright. She has created something of a fantasia on Parker's life. Yardbird takes place in the three days between Parker's death in New York and the discovery of his body, which the morgue mislabeled. In Wimberly's libretto, Parker is in a kind of limbo, attempting to write a new piece of music and come to terms with his tragically short life.

"He revisits a lot of places in the opera, in search of himself," Wimberly says. "And, ideally, at the end he finds himself at peace."

The opera looks at Parker's relationship with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, as well as his relationships with many of the women in his life: his mother, his patroness and his four wives.

"The opera is about him touching back into these specific moments that led him to different directions," Schnyder says. "You know, he ended up in California, in the insane asylum! Are you going to get all of Charlie Parker's life, per se, in 90 minutes? No. But we're going to touch on the major parts of his life."

Yardbird premiered in Philadelphia last June to rave reviews from both classical and jazz critics. Now it's being brought to the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where Parker performed. Wimberly says she couldn't be more excited.

"His spirit is here," Wimberly says. "So, this opera being on this stage — he's going to be all over the joint!"

Once the Harlem run is over, Charlie Parker's Yardbird will move to Chicago and other cities.

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The Show-Stopping Singing Of Javier Camarena Listen· 7:24
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Heard on Morning Edition Tenor Javier Camarena got to sing a rare encore while playing the role of Ernesto in the Metropolitan Opera production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale.

Tenor Javier Camarena got to sing a rare encore while playing the role of Ernesto in the Metropolitan Opera production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale.

Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

In our jobs, when we're told to redo something, it usually means we've made a mistake. That's not the case for Javier Camarena. Earlier this month at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the tenor had the chance to retake an aria during a performance of Donizetti's Don Pasquale because the audience went bonkers after the first time he sang it.

For many decades, the Met followed a strict no-encores policy. Camarena, who turned 40 on Saturday, has sung three encores at the Met so far. He joins fellow tenors Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Flórez as the only singers since 1942 to break the rule by repeating an aria during a complete performance. At the audio link on this page, Camarena speaks with NPR's Renee Montagne about his career and his latest encore.

"It doesn't happen often," he says. "But it's something that the public makes possible. It's about the reaction of the public when they are receiving your work. They measure this with applause, and actually they are asking for more."

In this case they asked for a repeat of the aria "E se fia che ad altro oggetto," which sports a stratospheric high D-flat at the end. Camarena places the note with a ringing sound and surprising ease. It's the kind of supple yet strong singing that has brought the Mexican tenor to the world's top opera houses.

Hear Camarena's Show-stopping Encore
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But how can you tell when to sing an encore, right in the middle of an opera? Camarena says it's a gut feeling.

"We did five performances, and right from the first one you could actually see what was happening with the public," he says. "And as we say in the theater, 'What the public demands, you give.' "

Camarena grew up in the Gulf Coast town of Veracruz, Mexico, with few signs of opera in his family.

"My father, now he's retired, was some kind of Homer Simpson, you know," Camarena says, chuckling. "He was working in a nuclear plant. ... My mother is a chef, and now she teaches cooking. We loved music at home. We could hear every kind of music but classical, and that's something that came with me."

Camarena had a voice. As a teenager he sang in a cover band and as a wedding singer. At the late age of 19, he wanted to study music. It was too late to become a pianist. "My best chances were with singing," he says.

In college, Camarena studied electrical engineering, but he eventually dropped it for music. He didn't tell his parents. After he finally admitted the switch, he says, "they were very, very angry." In one conversation with his mother, he recalls, she told him that he could end up sweeping streets if he pursued music. "Maybe I will," he told her. "But I will be happy." In the end, they acknowledged his passion.

After three years of study with an Italian teacher, Camarena finally saw his very first opera — on video. "It was Plácido Domingo and Éva Marton at the Met singing Turandot from Puccini," Camarena says. "And I was so, so in love then. And everything became clear. I knew I wanted to do this."

Camarena is billed as a bel canto tenor. Meaning "beautiful singing," it is a style born in Italy, best heard in music by composers such as Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, and requires voices with agility and a dynamic high register. "The main purpose," Camarena says, "is that you can show the possibilities and the beauty of the melodies in the voice."

It is the beauty, and those thrilling high notes, that forces audiences to leap to their feet. And every once in a great while, at least at the Met, an encore gets triggered by that thunderous applause.

"It feels like a tsunami sound coming to you," Camarena says. "It's covering every single space in the theater. My stomach is shaking. But it's not only about the applause, it's the atmosphere. You can cut it with a knife. It's really magical and joyful. And I can actually feel that."

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Meet Cuba's All-Female Orchestra Listen· 5:38
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Heard on Weekend Edition Saturday The Camerata Romeu rehearses at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Havana in November 2015.

The Camerata Romeu rehearses at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Havana in November 2015.

Anastasia Tsioulcas/NPR

Cuba is famous for its music. A lot of people have heard of artists like the Buena Vista Social Club and Celia Cruz. But the country also has a long history of cultivating classical composers and performers. On a recent trip to Cuba, I met one group that stands out.

In a country as stereotyped for its machismo as it is for its mambos, you might think an all-female classical ensemble would face an uphill struggle. But Cuban conductor Zenaida Romeu says that's not so.

"Everybody thinks that Cuban music is just guitar, bass and guiro," she says. "But we have more examples for large orchestras, for ensembles, for choir — we have a very big, intense musical life here."

Romeu founded her group, Camerata Romeu, 23 years ago. She wanted to show off the parity between men and women she saw in her native country.

Camerata Romeu YouTube

"Even in the 20th century, women had formed orchestras, and had been involved in the culture," she says. "At that time, I was in Spain, and I felt that the woman was not involved in society as we had had here, in spite that we are third world, and a tiny country. I felt that we had something to share with the world."

Romeu was the first Cuban woman to graduate from Havana's conservatory as an orchestral conductor, a fact about which she is very proud. And that conservatory helps feed her orchestra. Young women generally join her group when they're about 20 years old, and they say that they love collaborating together.

Yadira Cobo Rodriguez is the leader of the second violins and a composer herself. She's been playing with the orchestra for 14 years. She says there's a special energy to it.

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

Deceptive Cadence

A New Music Journey From The U.S. To Havana

"Men have more strength, and women, you have a different feeling," Cobo says. "It's more angelic, more comfortable."

Camerata Romeu is a string orchestra — made up of violins, violas, cellos and basses. And it plays the standard repertoire, like Vivaldi, Mozart and Grieg. But Romeu says some of the best composers from Cuba and beyond have written for her group, including Brazil's Egberto Gismonti (with whom they have recorded for ECM) and Cubans like Leo Brouwer and Guido López-Gavilán, who heads the organization of the contemporary music festival for which I had traveled to Havana in the first place, and whose Camerata en Guaguanco has become a signature piece for the Camerata Romeu.

Camerata Romeu YouTube

"So this is a privilege, because they work a lot in silence, in solitude, and they have a destiny: our orchestra," Romeu says. "Now, the literature of a string orchestra is bigger than when I founded the orchestra. So any orchestra now could be interested. If they are interested in playing Cuban music, I have music to share with them."

Camerata Romeu hasn't had a chance to share with listeners in the United States, though, since 2001.

"Well, I have a dream to return to the U.S. We have been four times there ... but before the year the towers fell down," Romeu says.

"After that, we had a silent time in between our countries," she continues. "So it's a dream to renew the relationships, the cultural relationships, and we can go again. We want to open again those spaces for our orchestra. We have been working hard all this time. I would like to share this music, and the happiness of doing music."

With any luck, Camerata Romeu will be one of the groups to benefit from the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

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