If You Liked Opus 111, You'll Just Love. . . .

If you’re familiar with Netflix, the big movie rental company, you probably know that they give recommendations to their customers, depending on what other people have viewed, and enjoyed. If you liked “Casablanca,” you’ll probably enjoy “The Maltese Falcon”; if you liked one Owen Wilson movie, you might enjoy the whole cycle; and so on.

And if you really delve into the rentals and the ratings from customers, some surprising correlations emerge. Apparently the same people who really like “The Wizard of Oz” also really like “The Silence of the Lambs.” Far from obvious, but true nonetheless. ( More in the New York Times; registration required.) Netflix would like a computer algorithm to figure these deep patterns out, and is offering a hefty prize to the genius who can design it for them – one million dollars.

It strikes me that something like this could be really helpful in classical music. It’s not uncommon for people to ask a question like: I went to a concert and really enjoyed [name of piece here]. What should I listen to next?

Sometimes there are pretty good guesses. If you like Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” it seems like a safe bet that you’d enjoy some of his other serenades or divertimentos. If you like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, you’ll probably like the first concerto by Max Bruch—it seems to breathe much of the same atmosphere, and the two pieces are regularly paired on recordings.

On the other hand, the obvious choices can sometimes mislead. There must be more than one listener who has experienced, and loved, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and gone on to other music by Pachelbel, only to discover that none of his other pieces have quite the same appeal. You might expect people who love the lengthy Austrian symphonies of Gustav Mahler to love the lengthy Austrian symphonies of Anton Bruckner. In some cases they do. But in many cases, fans of Mahler and Bruckner are two separate groups: Mahler-philes love their composer’s special brand of ambition (and think of Bruckner as something of an amateur), while Bruckner-philes adore the special openness of the Brucknerian world (and don’t have much time for what they see as Mahler’s self-absorption).

So when it comes to answering the musical question, What next? – we don’t yet have all the answers.

Maybe someone should offer a prize.

I guess that means her tour with Tom Jones is out of the question…

It seems Dame Kiri TeKanawa has some qualms about sharing the stage with underpants. She bowed out of a scheduled 2005 concert series with Australian songster John Farnham after learning that his more zealous fans sometimes fling their knickers onstage.

Why is a 2005 cancellation in the news now? Because the resultant (inevitable?) breach of contract lawsuit is now in court.

Read all about it.

P.S. In case you were wondering, John Farnham and Tom Jones have indeed shared the stage…in 2005, the very same year Kiri bailed for the aforementioned reason – those unreasonable unmentionables.

Tom: “Hey, John, what are you singing about under there?”

John: “Under where?”

bah dum bah!

Chicago Symphony: End of an Era

The Chicago Tribune reports: After 48 years in the Chicago Symphony, including 34 years as concertmaster, the legendary Samuel Magad is to retire this month, at the age of 73. Magad says he could have stayed on, but with Daniel Barenboim having made his exit, the violinist says now is a good time to step down. Magad was hired by Fritz Reiner in 1958, at the age of 25. Georg Solti appointed him concertmaster in 1972. No other player in CSO history has been concertmaster post longer. The legendary Adolph Herseth, who retired in 2001 after an unprecedented 53 years in the first trumpet chair.

Herseth, btw, is a native of Bertha, Minnesota. His story is a remarkable one, and I had the pleasure of talking to him just before his last concert. That became a feature on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and you can listen to it here.

It's (not) da bomb!

So what do classical music and bombs have in common? No we’re not talking about opening night failures at the opera, but it’s a weird bit of synchronicity that in the past few days two different stories have come out about classical music and “the bomb.”

Composer John Adams recently said he is not going to be able to finish his “Doctor Atomic Symphony” in time for its scheduled March 31 Carnegie Hall premiere. That piece is based on his opera “Doctor Atomic,” about Robert Oppenheimer, the developer of the A-bomb. (The making of the opera is also the subject of a documentary film that was entered in the Sundance Film Festival, which just wrapped up yesterday. It’s called “The Wonders Are Many: The Making of Dr. Atomic.” )

Meanwhile, there’s this headline from an Iranian news agency: “Nuclear symphony to commemorate Iran’s Islamic Revolution victory.” Well, it’s not about a bomb, apparently. It’s actually the “Nuclear ENERGY Symphony,” but with American skepticism running high about Iran’s nuclear program, there may be some eyebrows raised in the classical music division of the State Department about that one. You can find more background in this story from Yahoo news. Jeff Esworthy was wondering if they would open the program with “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst.

And for you trivia buffs, there was also a symphony called “Atomic Bomb” by Japanese composer Masao Oki, which premiered on November 6, 1953, one year to the day after the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb at Eniwetok Atoll.

Composer visited by aliens, gives birth to two-headed sheep

Musician, writer and creative writing professor Daniel Stern’s final piece before he died last week was one of his typical short stories called The Advancer. An obituary writer has a scheme to charge people for writing positive advance obituaries about them and bad ones about their enemies. At one point the cringing narrator says “I can never read an obituary again with innocent eyes.” Reading those lines gave me a bit of a chill and I’ll definitely need to pick up a copy of The Kenyon Review where the piece was published last Spring.

It was mostly our Music Director Rex Levang’s idea, but since today, January 27th marks the 251st birthday of Mozart and he seems to have raked in all the attention last year, we checked out just who else was born today. It turned out to be a good many from Edouard Lalo to Brazilian Radames Gnattali and flute virtuoso Emmanuel Pahud. Most of the composers and performers I presented on my program this morning are long dead, so the “obituaries” I gave were fairly positive and sanitized. But it did give me a little thrill when I’d find a National Enquirer-esque tidbit to tell that might give the music an extra zip like these:

The Symphony in G Minor by Edouard Lalo, born January 27, 1823, was championed ardently by Sir Thomas Beecham, but largely ignored by everyone else.

Operetta composer Eduard Künneke, born January 27, 1885 really didn’t care much for music and only composed in order to make money.

Brazilian Radames Gnattali, born January 27, 1906, would give his right arm and his favorite cavaquinho to compose classical music, but the wild night-life of Rio and the need to make money meant writing pop music including Brazilian choros.

Jack Brymer, OBE, born January 27, 1915, a clarinetist and saxophonist who came to classical music by way of pop music, failed to drop his characteristic jazzy vibrato along the way.

Born January 27, 1885, Showboat composer Jerome Kern suffered a heart attack when he was 54 and was told by his doctors to concentrate on film scores since Hollywood was way less stressful than Broadway. It only took another six years, and lots of good songs including Pick Yourself Up before Kern was killed from the stress.

And then there’s that so-called genius from Salzburg, Wolfgang Mozart, born January 27, 1756. Did you know he never found a solid post for himself in Vienna? Some genius; couldn’t even hold down a job!

Oh, dear, I guess this looking for the dirt exercise has gotten totally out-of-hand! Well, it was fun to take a look at all the composers and performers who came into the world in the dead of winter and went on to great success. I hope it was good listening too!

More Operatic Funnies

Via YouTube comes some video of operatic disasters, Department of Wagner. The commentary is in German; however, all you really need to know is that there are three clips here:

1. The man in the wings is prompting the chorus in their gestures. All goes well till the soloist’s costume becomes unbuttoned.

2. Siegfried’s Funeral Music.

3. The mighty hero cleaves the anvil in two, or tries to.

The commentator here seems to be saying that the first clip is an actual performance. But given the staginess, and the camera work, and the lipsynching, it just can’t be. Still kind of funny, though!

How do you say that again?

Earlier this week, I barged in like a bull in a china shop on one of my colleagues introducing a piece of music on the air. I tried to blend into the background as he announced the conductor of the piece, Hungarian/American Antal Dorati. My colleague gave the name as DOR-uh-tee, accenting the first syllable. After he put the music on, I, a bit impolitely, blurted out “Uh, I think it’s dor-AH-tee.” And to that he said, “Well, you know, Alison, I dated a Hungarian once and she set me straight on the name.”

So, as any self-respecting music host having just opened mouth and inserted foot, I looked up Dorati’s name to see who was right. Well, we’re both right; sort of. The Hungarians DO say it the way my colleague said it, and old Anton probably grew up referring to himself that way. But by the time he came to America and became a U.S. citizen, he changed his name to his preferred sort of Italianesque pronunciation. In fact, he even added an accent to the second syllable to be sure we all knew what he wanted.

So what about all this pronunciation stuff? I got a real kick out of how NPR handled the murder of Vincent Van Gogh’s great-grandnephew Theo Van Gogh. We’ve all been saying the artist’s name “van-GO” for so long, if the reporter suddenly started saying his name like the Dutch say it, “finn-GOFF,” people would scratch their heads and be a bit confused just who they were talking about. But the murdered film-maker, Theo Van Gogh, is only fairly recent news to the rest of the world. So in one sentence, the reporter said the two names entirely differently.

The problem gets a bit thorny on the air at Classical Minnesota Public Radio with about 25 hard names, words and titles to pronounce seemingly all at once. I know we give it our best shot and try to say them in a way that is respectful to the origin, while also being easily understood by our (for the most part) American audience. We try to sound educated and knowledgeable without going overboard with, for instance, a perfectly executed Barcelona tongue-through-the-teeth Isaac Albeniz (al-BAY-neeth) or a Parisian close-lipped and swallowed Claude Debussy (di-byu-SEE) I’m sure we’re not always spot on, so, if I haven’t already opened a huge can of worms, I’d love to know if we’re making sense to you on the air!

H Is for History Boys

If you saw the recent movie, “The History Boys” (or the play that it’s based on), you might be interested to know about its origins, according to its author:

Listen to Nicky Hytner on “Private Passions,” Michael Berkeley’s always excellent programme, a superior and more interesting Desert Island Discs without its tiresome conventions. Most of Nick’s musical choices are quite spare (or “transparent” as Nick calls them), not caring for music as a warm bath, which is generally where my musical appreciations stops. So there’s Handel, Janácek, Sondheim, Haydn and Britten and ending with a wonderfully slow and sexy rendering of “Bewitched” by Ella Fitzgerald, with the words “I’ll spring to him and sing to him / And worship the trousers that cling to him.”

Nick doesn’t mention the stories of singing as a boy in the choir with the Halle under Barbirolli or how he was winkled out of Jewish prayers to bolster the singing of the Christian hymns, at Manchester Grammar School. But it reminds me of the stories as Nick told them to me and how vivid and touching they were, so after the programme I make notes to see if I can turn these anecdotes into a film.

–Alan Bennett, “Untold Stories”

And so the play came to exist from listening to the radio. . . .

Vienna Postcard No. 2

Sorry for the delay since Postcard No. 1. The problem with coming to Vienna to work is, well, all that pesky work! It has a habit of getting in the way of sightseeing and blogging. Our MPR team was able to combine business and pleasure on Monday, by taking a microphone with us around the city, and recording sounds of Vienna old and new, to incorporate into the opening sequence of our broadcast. With a laptop and digital sound editing, it’s fantastic to be able bring a complete audio studio in a shoulder bag! The rest of our Monday was production work, scripting, and preparing for Tuesday’s broadcast.

Now it’s Wednesday and my work is done, after last night’s live broadcast from the Musikverein. I was stationed in the same announcer’s booth used for the annual New Year’s concert by the Vienna Philharmonic. If that sounds glamorous, guess again: it’s basically a storage closet. Actually, this sort of thing is not so unusual in the radio business (no pictures, after all). I did have a video feed of the stage so I could see the action while calling the live ‘play-by-play.’ After sorting out some 11th-hour/nail-biting technical issues (it just wouldn’t be a live broadcast without them!), the show went off without a hitch. Very fun to be there!!

My only regret? Not being able to hear the concert while seated in the hall, which has the best acoustic in the world. But I did sit in on rehearsal, and was again struck by the energy of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Also, their sound was even clearer in the Musikverein than in their usual digs at the Ordway. I know how a tour like this galvanizes an orchestra. As an American musician, the old European concert halls are a new experience, and combined with pulling together for a road trip, the music-making is refreshed. It’s carbonated — there’s an extra sparkle you can hear.

Right now I’m hearing through the wall of my hotel room an SPCO violinist practicing; A very nice way to start the day, at least for me! I know that practice time is dear when you’re traveling every day in an orchestra, so you sneak in whatever moments you can. The orchestra’s bus leaves in minutes for their next concert in Zagreb . My work here is over, but will spend some time relaxing in Vienna, incl Bryn Terfel as Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper this evening. Also, someone told me they just might have some good desserts here as well. Hmmm..

Liebe Grüße aus Wien!

Vienna Postcard No. 1

Greetings from Vienna, where our production team is preparing for tomorrow’s live broadcast of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from the Musikverein, the famous concert hall that is home to the Vienna Philharmonic. Tomorrow will be a day of many firsts: the first SPCO concert from Vienna, Roberto Abbado’s first time conducting in the Musikverein, and Minnesota Public Radio’s first broadcast from there as well!

This is my first chance to do radio in the Musikverein, but I was lucky to hear the Vienna Philharmonic there many years ago, and also to perform there with the Cincinnati Symphony (in my previous life as a horn player). So it was wonderful to be in the hall again today. Our production team of Brad Althoff, Michael Osborne, and I met with the manager of the concert series to see the hall and our broadcast booth to get a sense of what tomorrow will bring.

It’s mild in Vienna, about 45 degrees, and a good day to visit the big landmarks, including the famous Stephansdom, the fabulous baroque Karlskirche (where a plaque commemorates Anton Bruckner’s Te Deum), the Albertina, and the Staatsoper. Yes, there’s now Starbucks and Burger King on the Kartnerstrasse — Vienna is not immune to globalization — but it still maintains a timeless elegance and genuine charm around every turn.

But there’s work to be done to prepare for tomorrow’s broadcast, and meanwhile we await tomorrow’s arrival of the SPCO, after their first concert tonight in Budapest. More to come…