Ending 2008 on a High Note

And I mean a really high note. Behold two slightly unbearable (okay, actually totally excruciating) minutes, but hey, it’s New Year’s Eve.

First, some cautionary notes:

1. Don’t try this at home; it could be dangerous.

2. Don’t play this around dogs; they could become dangerous.

3. Beware the dangers of testosterone poisoning.

4. Remember the advice of the late, great jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard: “Don’t make the mistake I made of not taking care of myself. Please, keep your chops cool and don’t overblow.”

Happy New Year!

Classical Music at the Inauguration

Aretha Franklin isn’t the only musician on the program for Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20th.

Composer and film music legend John Williams has been commissioned to write a new piece, to be performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill.

I can’t find anymore information about the piece, but you can find out more about the program for the inauguration here.

Lessons and Carols: She Burned the Sweet Potatoes

In just a few minutes, we’ll be starting this year’s live broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

For many, this is an old holiday tradition, and on our Web site you’ll find a page of comments from listeners, and memories of the first US broadcasts–including the woman who became so engrossed in it while preparing Christmas dinner that she burned the sweet potatoes.

But new listeners also discover it for the first time each year: all the details are here.

(Interesting behind-the-scenes information: the service begins with the singing of a single unaccompanied boy soprano. But the choice of the soloist is a secret until the very beginning of the service. At that point, the choirmaster silently points to the boy who will take the solo. The theory is that that way, no one suffers from stage fright, nerves, etc.)

But Do You Get Mints On Your Pillow?

Going to Barack Obama’s inauguration? Need a place to stay? Well, Lorin Maazel wants to help.

The music director of the New York Philharmonic and his wife will let you stay at their country estate in Virginia–for a mere $50,000. Per night.

Sure, the price seems steep, but not when you consider that the place holds up to 50 people, and comes with amenities you won’t find at your local Super 8:

The complex includes a spa facility with a large heated swimming pool, a Turkish steam room and a Finnish sauna. Guests also can use a theater room with a commercial-size movie screen, along with a bowling alley and a petting zoo.

What’s more, that fifty grand is partially tax-deductible. The money raised will go to the Maazels’ Chateauville Foundation to support the new Castleton Festival, created to foster young musical artists.

Get all the particulars here.


Puccini 150th

Ten years ago, we put together a Web page on the opera Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. Little did we realize it would turn out to be one of our more popular offerings–year after year, Web visitors drop in to read the story, see the production photos, and even check out the recipes.

Today is Puccini’s 150th birthday–so here’s a shameless plug for the Tosca Page.

Estonia's Singing Revolution

I’m listening to Christmas with Cantus live on Classical MPR right now, and one of the singers just mentioned how vital choral singing is to the culture of Estonia. He plugged a recent documentary on how choral music helped Estonia throw off Soviet control in the early 1990s. The film is called The Singing Revolution, and on the MPR blog Movie Natters, Euen Kerr wrote about it earlier this week. Read Euen’s entry here.

Pianist Alfred Brendel Retires

Pianist Alfred Brendel gave his final public performance last night, to a 20-minute standing ovation. He’d been playing professionally for about 60 years.

Fred Child of Performance Today put together a lovely tribute to Mr. Brendel, including clips of an interview Fred did with him a few years ago. It gives a glimpse into the man and his off-beat sense of humor. Find it on Fred’s blog Today’s Fredlines, here.

Christmas Songs as Primal Need

Daniel J. Levitin is an interesting guy. He’s a rock musician and record producer who decided to go back to school, earned a PhD, and is now a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in the effects of music on our brains.

He had a piece in the Wall Street Journal last week about Christmas songs. First, he addresses why we sing them:

Our drive to surround ourselves with familiar music during life cycle events and annual celebrations is ancient in origin. Throughout most of our history as a species, music was a shared cultural experience.

Then he goes on to talk about why we get annoyed by them as background music in shopping malls:

Songs that are immediately appealing are not typically those that contain the most surprise. We like them at first and then grow tired of them…Holiday mall music is irritating because the sort of music that appeals to people of disparate backgrounds and ages is going to tend to be harmonically unsurprising.

He also has some interesting thoughts about what he calls “the great and apparent de-socialization of music.” Read the whole thing here.


We all have that music that we never get tired of hearing. For me, it’s Handel’s Messiah. I grew up with this music and it will always have a special place in my life.

Sunday I had the pleasure of hearing a performance of Messiah at Orchestra Hall. Just like the drastically changing weather at the time, conductor Christoper Warren Green took a brisk and spirited pace, just the way Handel intended. The Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale and soloists all looked like they were having a blast. Thanks to them, despite Mother Nature’s rude ways, the afternoon was, in a word, glorious.

It was just what I needed to really be one with the season.

So what does it for you?

Christmas List

BBC Music, which logically enough is the music magazine of the BBC, has released its list of the 50 top Christmas carols.

The results seem pretty odd, at least to this American reader. Here are their Top Five, and nary a Silent Night or Hark the Herald in the bunch:

1. In the Bleak Midwinter (Harold Darke)

2. In Dulci Jubilo

3. A Spotless Rose

4. Bethlehem Down

5. Coventry Carol

The list was selected by a group of mostly British choral conductors, which might explain why the list is British-centric. And they may have been thinking more about pieces that their choirs sing in concerts and services, and not so much about broad popularity.

I’ve searched for an online version, with no luck–maybe a better Googler than I can find the link. (It’s the December 2008 issue.) Meanwhile, you can read and hear a bit of the Top 5 here.

Any favorite carols you’d like to weigh in on?