Classical Music: What a bargain!

It’s a common misconception that only the rich can afford to see live classical music. New Yorker columnist (and MacArthur genius grant winner) Alex Ross deconstructs the myth by seeing how much classical music he can hear live for $100.

Short answer? More than he had time to get to. Read about it here.

True, he lives in New York City, but one could do the same thing in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Check our Events Calendar for hints about where to start.

John Updike Soars

There’s nothing I can add to the hundreds of wonderful tributes and thoughtful obituaries for John Updike. But I can offer a few of his poems, which he read for the 2002 edition of my annual Thanksgiving radio special, Giving Thanks.

Click here to listen to Updike read some of his poems about Thanksgiving, November, and gratitude for living.

VocalEssence in the UK: Day 7 – Ely

And I don’t mean Ely, Minnesota. Unless they have a cathedral there that looks like this:

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But more about that in a moment. Today started on the radio.

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Philip Brunelle was invited to the BBC Cambridgeshire, the regional BBC radio station, to promote the concert at King’s College Chapel that evening.

He spent a lively ten minutes on “Cambridgeshire Breakfast with Jeremy Sallis”. I even got corralled into being interviewed for a minute or two; it seems that morning radio is unavoidable.

At 2pm, I was talking on another morning radio show — morning in Minnesota time, that is. Had a quick chat with my colleague Steve Staruch back at MPR, and was speaking to him from here:

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Ely Cathedral, about 40 minutes drive from Cambridge, is having it’s 900th anniversary party this Sunday. That makes Cambridge University a mere tot; it’s celebrating it’s 800th this year. Meanwhile, VocalEssence continued its 40th anniversary tour with a noon concert in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. Oh, and who’s that chap kneeling, setting up the mic stand on the right?:

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That’s the famous English composer, John Rutter! He offered to come and record the VocalEssence concert, which I hope to be able to share with you upon my return next week.

For the evening, the singers were back to Cambridge for a magnificent evening performance at King’s College Chapel. Tomorrow, it’s back to London for more radio, and one more performance before heading home to MN on Sunday. It’s a joint concert with the BBC Singers at the storied Maida Vale studios, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Stay tuned; meanwhile, check out the VocalEssence photo blog to view more pictures, and the tour blog for the singers POV.

More on the Inaugural Music

In response to a previous inaugural post, reader Richard asked, Was that piece composed based on one by Aaron Copland?

Quick explanation: composer John Williams did write the piece, but used the old tune “Simple Gifts,” which became well-known when Copland used it in his own “Appalachian Spring.” And Williams definitely employed some other Copland-esque touches.

But let’s give credit to the man who actually wrote “Simple Gifts” in the 19th century, a member of the Shaker faith named Joseph Brackett. Judging by the exposure his melody has received, Brackett is one of the greatest one-hit wonders in music.

There’s been lots of commentary on the piece; for just one smattering, check out the Performance Today blog, Today’s Fredlines.

However: all of that commentary and critiquing of the piece itself is likely to be overshadowed by the latest news: because of the cold weather, the players were synching to a recording.*

*NY Times; registration required.

VocalEssence in the UK: Day 6 – Cambridge

First Oxford, now Cambridge for the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers.

Cambridge is a famous spot for choirs, thanks to King’s College of Cambridge University. The King’s College Choir is loved the world over for their annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, broadcast to England by the BBC, and to America via American Public Media in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The director of the King’s College Choir is Stephen Cleobury. He’s also conductor of the BBC Singers, with whom VocalEssence will perform at the BBC studios this Saturday.

Meanwhile, Stephen Cleobury’s wife Emma met us for a tour of the Chapel.


We attended Evensong in the Chapel, followed by supper in the student dining hall at King’s College. Somehow, I don’t remember my college cafeteria looking quite like this:


An evening rehearsal with Stephen Cleobury in the Chapel sounded marvelous. Photography inside the Chapel is only by permit, and since I didn’t have one, I’ll direct you to the VocalEssence photo blog to view some beautiful pictures.

More tomorrow

VocalEssence in the UK: Day 4 & 5 – London

Hi, we’re back. Didn’t have time to blog yesterday; I was busy producing our London VocalEssence broadcast. This can be highly glamourous. Take, for example, the improvised recording studio in my tiny hotel room:

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This is where I had to pre-record some announcements before the concert. Pillows around the microphone reduce the echo sound in the room. The toilet paper rolls just happened to stack up to the right height to place the mic. Meanwhile, over at St. John’s, Smith Square, engineer Simon Weir and his concert recording crew had a rather more high-tech setup to capture the VocalEssence concert, though still in a decidedly non-glam back room at the church.

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But it’s not the back room that matters here, it’s the main performance hall where VocalEssence sang their Inauguration Day concert. Beautiful acoustics for the ear, and lovely to the eye:

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St. John’s, Smith Square is only a few blocks south of Westminster Abbey, tucked into a rather posh residential neighborhood favored by members of Parliament. St. John’s is often called ‘Queen Anne’s Footstool’ because as legend has it, when the archictect designing the church asked Queen Anne what she wanted it to look like, she kicked over her footstool upside-down and said “Like that!”, giving rise to the building’s four corner towers.

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It was firebombed to a ruin in WWII, sold to a charitable trust, and turned into a concert hall with one of the best acoustic spaces in London. It’s the home of the London Chamber Orchestra, and a favorite destination for a who’s who of visiting A-list classical musicians, including VocalEssence.

Wednesday included a packed afternoon concert at St. Giles Cripplegate in London. Today it’s onward to Cambridge, and a visit to the famous King’s College Chapel.

That’s where the King’s College Choir performs their famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve. And that’s where VocalEssence performs tomorrow evening. I’ll try to record a bit of today’s rehearsal for you, and share that music with you when when I phone in another live update to Steve Staruch on Classical Minnesota Public Radio tomorrow morning, around 8am CT.

Meanwhile, for many more tour photos, check out the VocalEssence photo stream, and for the singer’s inside track, the VocalEssence tour blog. Cheers!

Classical Music at the Inauguration

Judging by the number of online comments, there’s a lot of curiosity about the instrumental piece played at yesterday’s inaugural ceremonies.

It’s called “Air and Simple Gifts,” by John Williams, and it was performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, Gabriela Montero and Itzhak Perlman.

Yesterday’s performance was the world premiere, so there aren’t lots of recordings out there. But you can hear the piece again today on Performance Today–minus the voice-over that you heard on some broadcasts.

VocalEssence in the UK: Day 3 – London


No public concert today, but VocalEssence has a radio date at the BBC. After lunch and shopping in Covent Garden (including Puccini-singing buskers adjacent to the Royal Opera House), we head for the BBC’s Broadcast House for a live performance on “In Tune,” on Radio 3.

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Studio space is tight, so there’s room for only half of the Ensemble Singers. But the atmosphere is genial.


Affable host Sean Rafferty was very taken by the music, and interviewed conductor Philip Brunelle and two singers. Here’s how it looked from the control room:


“In Tune” airs weekdays from 5p -7p, and mixes live performance and chat in a fashion not unlike our own “Performance Today.” Top-drawer talent only: Yo Yo Ma was the guest the day before, and just before VocalEssence sang, Sean Rafferty had a live phone interview with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb, about the Met’s financial crisis. You can listen to VocalEssence on the BBC here. This visit was a treat for me as well, as I was able to get a radio-insiders tour of the the BBC studios. How reassuring to discover that the BBC is every bit as messy as every other radio station I’ve ever ever seen!

Next, it’s the first of two London concerts, an all-American program with some special treats for Inauguration Day. Be sure to tune in to Classical Minnesota Public Radio this evening at 8pm for the performance from St. John’s, Smith Square in London.

For many more tour photos, check out the VocalEssence photo stream, and for the singer’s inside track, the VocalEssence tour blog.

VocalEssence in the UK: Day 2 – Birmingham

A morning drive from Oxford brings the VocalEssence tour to Birmingham for a quick lunch, dress rehearsal, and 3pm concert at Birmingham’s Town Hall:


This hall just underwent a first-class renovation, adding subtle modern acoustical touches, while restoring the feeling Mendelssohn must’ve had when he was the first person to play the magnificent organ:


Mendelssohn’s Elijah was premiered here, as was Elgar’s oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius,” which received its Midwest premiere by VocalEssence some years ago). While in Oxford, composer and former King’s Singer Bob Chilcott said Town Hall is now one of the premiere concert destinations in England, especially for choral music. From the dress rehearsal:


Here, the Ensemble Singers sound wonderful; all the way to the back row, powerful and precise. And those descriptors aren’t mine. They were used by a chap I spoke with over coffee during “the interval” (as it’s called in England). He’s a singer in the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus. He said their director had recommended the VocalEssence concert to his Birmingham choristers as a chance to hear one of the outstanding vocal groups in America, with a bigger, more versatile sound, and a bolder attitude. And he loved the all-American repertoire, a rarity here.

Next, on to London for Day 3. No public concert scheduled, but VocalEssence performs, and Philip Brunelle will be interviewed on BBC Radio 3’s “In Tune” program, which is a live music and arts magazine heard by millions all over England. And be sure to tune in to Classical Minnesota Public Radio on Tuesday evening at 8pm for the special VocalEssence Inauguration Day concert from St. John’s, Smith Square in London.

For many more tour photos, check out the VocalEssence photo stream, and for the singer’s inside track, the VocalEssence tour blog.

VocalEssence in the UK: Day 1 – Oxford

Greetings from England, and the VocalEssence 40th anniversary tour, which began with a performance in Oxford last night.

It was an evening marked by warm feelings – and cold toes! The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin is, like many old English churches, cold and damp, and the singers aren’t accustomed to getting numb toes during a concert (more than one singer said they did!). But the lack of modern central heat is more than compensated for by its splendid acoustics, and visual beauty.


For its tour of England, VocalEssence won’t take coals to Newcastle; they’re singing American choral masterpieces. But the Oxford concert included one surprise addition.

Composer (and ex-King’s Singer) Bob Chilcott lives near Oxford, and came to the concert to visit old Minnesota friends. What Bob did not know was that conductor Philip Brunelle added one of Bob’s pieces to the concert, announcing it from the stage, and inviting Bob to the stage to read the text. The piece was one that Bob Chilcott wrote last month for Philip’s choir at Plymouth Congregational Church., so this was the English premiere! Bob was thrilled, and beaming!

Apart from the concert, there were the delights of Oxford, including VocalEssence concert posters all around town, in every shop, cafe, and outside the church where the concert took place, of course:



And, of course, for Harry Potter fans — and the crowds confirm they’re here by the zillions, welcome to Hogwarts (aka Christ Church College dining hall):


For many more tour photos, check out the VocalEssence photo stream, and for the singer’s inside track, the VocalEssence tour blog. And be sure to tune in to Classical Minnesota Public Radio on Tuesday evening at 8pm for the special Inauguration Day concert from St. John’s, Smith Square in London.