A 'sports car' pipe organ

Coventry Cathedral pipe organ consoleThe console of Coventry Cathedral’s pipe organ (courtesy Coventry Cathedral’s Facebook page)

Tonight’s broadcast of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem appropriately evokes reflection on what occurred in Coventry, England, 73 years ago, as well as thoughts about the broader consequences of war.

But a recent bit of news cast a fresh spotlight on the music that happens in Coventry Cathedral today.

Just two weeks ago, the 1962-built Harrison and Harrison pipe organ in Coventry Cathedral was awarded the Cathedral Grade 1 status by the British Institute of Organ Studies (BIOS) for its “importance to the national heritage.” It is now listed in BIOS’s Historic Register of Pipe Organs.

To get a sense of what makes Coventry’s pipe organ special, I spoke to Laurence Lyndon-Jones, the former assistant director of music at Coventry Cathedral (he’s now assistant organist at Chelmsford Cathedral). At Coventry, Lyndon-Jones regularly accompanied the choir on organ, and he organized the cathedral’s Monday-night, summertime recital series. “It was very exciting working with such a wonderful musical instrument,” he says. “It’s one of the finest instruments in the country, if not further afield.”

Lyndon-Jones has a useful analogy for describing what sets the Coventry pipe organ apart:

“The Coventry organ — if you think of it in terms of comparing it with different types of car, which is something I think works quite well to describe what it’s like playing the organs — it’s definitely a sports car: the Coventry organ is very responsive, very quick and very exciting to play, whereas other cathedral organs in England are fantastically musical instruments, but more grand and less agile. The Coventry organ is a very agile, exciting yet still sensitive if need be, with a range all the way up to very loud, exciting sound as well.

“There are lots of different colors you can use, and all of them are very responsive to your input, really, which makes it a very exciting experience.”

Here’s a short video of Lyndon-Jones in the driver’s seat of that “sports car”:

You can hear more of Coventry Cathedral’s pipe organ as well as performances on other British cathedrals’ pipe organs in this July 30, 2007. episode of Pipedreams with Michael Barone.

Helene Grimaud howls for wolf conservation

This week on Performance Today, you’re hearing the beautiful music of French pianist Hélène Grimaud. In addition to being a top-notch musician, Grimaud has made a reputation as an outspoken advocate for a conservation-related cause of particular interest to Minnesotans.

Jason Eades of Superior, Wisc. (right) and Jamie Petite of Cloquet, Minn. protest Minnesota’s wolf hunt in downtown Duluth on Oct. 12, 2013. (MPR Photo/Dan Kraker)

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In 1999, Grimaud co-founded a conservation center for wolves in Westchester County, New York. A 2011 New Yorker profile of Grimaud awkwardly draws a parallel between the artist’s fondness for wolves and her musical career (“Wolves form packs with well-defined jobs, and their members are coöperative and hierarchical, like the players in an orchestra […] Grimaud said that she saw herself as a beta in the music world”) but also explains the genesis of her interest in wolves, tracing it to a friendship she formed with a man who kept a wolf–or perhaps a wolf-dog hybrid–as a pet.

In 2012, gray wolves in Minnesota were removed from the endangered species list, and sport hunting resumed soon thereafter; in the 2012 wolf season, hunters and trappers in Minnesota killed 413 wolves. Despite vigorous opposition from groups opposed to the wolf hunt, a 2013 season has already begun.

Grimaud’s Wolf Conservation Center is among the organizations opposing wolf hunts. A recent newsletter stakes the center’s position:

Gray wolves were persecuted so heavily in the past that by the mid-1900’s, most lands in the lower 48 were emptied of their top predator. With the support of the American public and the ESA, however, the wolf was able to return to portions of its native range. In areas where wolves were restored, like the northern Rocky Mountains and western Great Lakes states, scientists have noted more diverse plant and wildlife thriving where they had been suppressed for decades. The ESA gave wolves and balanced ecosystems a hard-won second chance. Should we be willing to throw it away?

Hélène Grimaud is just one example of a classical musician taking a stand on issues beyond the concert stage. What do you think? Do you agree with this pianist and conservationist about wolf hunting, or do you disagree? Do musicians’ views on extra-musical issues affect the way you listen to their music?

Why are classical album covers so boring?

The final volume of BIS’s Bach cantata series–volume 55–is one of the most notable recent classical releases; among other plaudits, it was highlighted by BBC Music Magazine as the single most outstanding release of the month. Understandably, conductor Masaaki Suzuki appears on the disc’s cover looking well-pleased.

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Of course, he also looked well-pleased on the cover of volume 54.

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And volume 53.

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And volume 52.

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Now, I appreciate that BIS had more urgent concerns to attend to than designing 55 entirely distinct CD sleeves. That said, it seems odd that with such a distinguished recording series, there was so little effort to generate visual excitement. Classical labels may run on shoestring budgets–in fact, they certainly do–but the classical world seems to be slow to pick up on the reality that’s already been acknowledged in other media realms: the content may be king, but a king has a hard time ruling when he’s dressed in rags.

Limited budgets notwithstanding, classical labels seem perversely driven to draw attention to their packaging design struggles. I wouldn’t even have noticed the Suzuki repetition, for example, if BIS hadn’t positioned volumes 54 and 55 right next to one another in a large print advertisement. Then there’s this trick, where the same photo shoot is made to do double duty with slightly varied poses.

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Even the stock images of flowers, cathedrals, and composers are better, since at least they can be varied. They might be boring, but boring is probably preferable to laughable. Then there are those designers who draw plenty of attention to their album covers–but for the wrong reasons.

Can classical music’s design problem be solved–within a budget? Possibly. Consider what’s happened with classic literature: enterprising publishers are enlisting comic book illustrators and getting creative with type to put fresh faces on books by dead authors. Word Cloud Classics, a series from Thunder Bay Press, uses textured plastic covers to add a new tactile element to the act of reading.

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In popular music, bands and labels are encouraging consumers’ newfound interest in analog formats such as vinyl and even (strange but true) audiocassettes, recognizing the advantage in selling a product that can’t be torrented. Interesting covers and packaging have become more integral to pop music marketing than ever, whether the label is a major player like Interscope (with Lady Gaga commissioning Jeff Koons to create a sculpture for the cover of her new album Artpop) or a small outfit like Minnesota-turned-California label Moon Glyph. (Of course, indie rock has its own well-worn tropes: for every photo of a pianist reflected on a Steinway cover, there are ten photos of hipster bands standing in parking lots wearing Ray-Bans.)

What do you think? What are your favorite classical album covers? What covers do you never want to lay eyes on again? Is there anything the classical world can reasonably do–within its limited resources–to step up its design game?

On the Air This Week

Highlights from Nov. 12 to 19

Tuesday, 7:15 am: School Spotlight: Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies.

Tuesday, 5:30 pm: Music with Minnesotans: Teacher and land steward Luther Gerlach.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies.

Wednesday, 7 pm: Carnegie Hall Live: The San Francisco Symphony, with pianist Jeremy Denk.

Thursday, 3 pm hour: Regional Spotlight: The Bach Society of Minnesota.

Thursday, 8 pm: Britten’s War Requiem, with the St. Olaf Chapel Choir and Orchestra.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: The Winds of Aeolus.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen.

Monday, 6:30 7 pm: Carnegie Hall Live: The period-instrument ensemble Arcangelo, led by Jonathan Cohen.

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Spotlight: Christopher Fogderud of Brainerd High School.

Tuesday, 5:30 pm: Music with Minnesotans: Fiber artist Arden Bushnell.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Spotlight: Christopher Fogderud of Brainerd High School.

Veterans Day Choral Tribute

This is definitely one of my favorite patriotic choral arrangements! Kudos to the American Choral Directors Association for having the Vocal Majority perform at their 50th Anniversary conference. These guys are AMAZING! You know who else is amazing? All the men and women that have dedicated their lives to protecting our great country. Let us thank and remember those who have served in our Armed Forces. Although words will never be enough, I truly appreciate and recognize all you have sacrificed to protect us. God bless you.

Composer Spotlight Vol. 1: Jake Runestad

Jake-Runestad.jpgWhen I came to Minneapolis for my interview with VocalEssence, one of the first people to show me around the twin cities was “local” composer Jake Runestad. Little did I know that the word local was not an accurate word to use when describing Jake Runestad and his compositional reach. This guy has received commissions and performances by Craig Hella Johnson, Patrick Quigley, Philip Brunelle, Andre Thomas, James Bass and the list goes on.

Funny thing is, he is only 27 years old…and in some conversations…a rising choral rockstar. It is evident that he has an excellent pedigree; having studied with acclaimed composer Libby Larsen and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Kevin Puts. So to put it simply, Jake Runestad is the real deal.

His latest project, Dreams of the Fallen, will be premiered on Monday night and will feature pianist Jeffrey Biegel, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans. This work is part piano concerto and part choral symphony with emotionally charged text by Iraq War veteran Brian Turner. Honoring Our Heroes – A Veterans Day Concert will be performed at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. There will be a live web-stream of the performance starting at 7pm and it can be found at www.lpomusic.com. Did I mention that actor John Goodman will be making an appearance to narrate Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait? I’ll definitely be watching and hopefully you will too!

MPR Exclusive Sneak Peak of Dreams of the Fallen

Jake Runestad’s description of Dreams of the Fallen

Best YouTube Performance

Music Portfolio

An 'Arabella' preview

Last night I sat in on the final dress rehearsal of the Minnesota Opera’s production of Arabella by Richard Strauss. If you go, here are a few things you might notice. First of all, there is no overture to set the scene. Music Director Michael Christie walks into the pit, the oversized orchestra of 62 musicians plays a few notes, and the singers are off. This opera is an athletic feat of endurance, especially for Jacqueline Wagner, who plays the lead, and her betrothed Mandryka, sung by baritone Craig Irvin. These musicians are well-trained Olympians.

The composer intended this music to be a bit frenetic; however, the tension is relieved every time Arabella graces the stage. Wagner’s elegance as an actor and her rich, velvety voice melts more than one suitor’s heart. There is plenty of comic relief starting with Arabella’s sister, Zdenka, sung by Elizabeth Futral. Zdenka was a wild child, so even as a young woman she dresses and behaves as a boy. She even proclaims, “I will be a boy until I die.” However, she does discover her womanhood in Act II.

You’ll also notice the detailed whitewashed set as the curtain goes up on Act I. The scene is a hotel in Vienna in the 1920s. As Arabella blossoms, so does the color on the stage, in the form of flowers, the Downton Abbey-styled costumes and the set itself.

One incredible highlight is the love duet in Act II between Arabella and Mandryka. Irvin and Wagner are beautifully matched; if you aren’t moved by this duet, you don’t have a pulse!

And because this was a press event, live tweeting was not only permitted, but encouraged. Here are some of the photos I live-tweeted from the rehearsal to give you a taste of the production:

Snow after midnight…

Southern boys don’t get to experience snow very often. That’s why I decided to stop by the office tonight; to get my first swing at this Minnesota winter (I told y’all I was crazy). I knocked back a few Monsters and started jamming to some good ol’ choral music. One of my favorite pieces by Eric Whitacre cued up on my playlist and then it hit me.

Back in the day, when he composed what is now known as Sleep, the music had different poetry. Whitacre originally set Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, unfortunately, he hadn’t secured the rights to do so. Long story short, after a battle with the Frost estate, the original text was no longer an option. Whitacre wisely collaborated with lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri and re-birthed what is now one of his most beloved works. Being totally honest, I prefer the marriage of Silvestri’s text with Whitacre’s music, but I want to open the floor for dialogue. What’s your preference? Listen to both and chime in…

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening


The Heart's Reflection – CD Review and an MPR Exclusive Note from the Composer

After listening to this album, I was simply blown away by Daniel Elder‘s beautiful harmonic language. I was so inspired by his music that I contacted him almost immediately to discuss his compositional journey. The artistry this ensemble exhibits is simply astounding and it became abundantly clear why Daniel Elder won the Abbey Road Studios’ 80th Anniversary Anthem Competition with his composition The Heart’s Reflection. Dr. Joe Miller and the Westminster Choir illuminate the warmth and transparency of Elder’s music in this fantastic recording. I strongly recommend you give this album a listen.

An MPR Exclusive Note From the Composer

“The process of recording “The Heart’s Reflection,” the Westminster Choir’s newest recording under Maestro Joe Miller, was one of utmost privilege for me as an emerging composer. From the early stages of planning the program, in which Dr. Miller sat down with me to comb through my entire works and pick a dozen of the best-fitting artistic statements, to the month-long rehearsal process (yes, barely four weeks of rehearsal) in which I sat in with the choir as they prepared these works to record; in all of this I was humbled at the high level of attention and artistry that my music was given. When the album was first planned, I was given leave to write an additional 3-4 works on top of what I currently had in my catalogue – I cannot express how exciting it was to write new music knowing it would immediately be rehearsed and recorded on such a profound project. I endeavored to create a collection of widely-varying themes that could hold the attention of today’s diverse audience, from sweet piano themes to electric percussion accompaniments and every a cappella style in between. As a result, I hope that those who listen to this CD can take something from it that speaks directly to them and their unique experiences.”

~Daniel Elder

Preview Track: Ballade to the Moon