Click on Classical: Quintessential Beethoven, a surprising lesson, naming chamber groups

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Every Monday morning at about 9:15, I join John Birge on Classical MPR to discuss some of the stories we’re featuring on our site. Three stories we’ll be talking about this morning:

• I grew up in awe of my father’s 85-record Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: a near-complete set of the composer’s works issued by Time Life in 1970 to celebrate Beethoven’s 200th birthday. I’ve resolved to listen to every single record in the set at least once by the time Beethoven turns 250, and to hold myself to it, I’m writing a blog post for every record. This week, I write about the most quintessentially BEETHOVEN piece in the set.

• When Ellen Blum Barish went to hear an Edgar Meyer concert at Northwestern University’s beautiful Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, she was distressed to hear a repeated clicking sound. Was it the heating system acting up? Was someone flicking a pen or tapping their seat? She was so distracted, she pulled up her jacket collar to try to focus her ears. Finally Ellen’s husband went to tell an usher about the sound — and the two of them learned a surprising lesson about tolerance.

• Moorhead french hornist Gwen Hoberg and a few of her colleagues recently founded a brass trio–but what to name their group? They looked at other chamber group names and brainstormed ideas that included the Red River Brass Trio, Valves and Slides, the Joyful Brass, Flood of Sound, the Loki Trio, Tundra Brass, the Bohemian Brass, and even — in tribute to the revival of Cosmos — the Sagan Trio. Eventually, they all agreed they’d found the perfect name for their northerly ensemble.

Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 4 & 5

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The first Beethoven that I knew as Beethoven was the opening of the fifth symphony, the four-note tattoo that’s one of the most famous figures in all of music. I first recall hearing it on a Time-Life record — not this album in my dad’s Beethoven Bicentennial Collection, but one of those flimsy little plastic records that you were supposed to weight with a penny and put on your turntable to sample the sound of a collection being advertised.

In this case, it was a classical collection featuring, of course, the mighty Beethoven. The sampler record opened with a few bars of the fifth symphony, then a stentorian announcer was heard. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but the gist was that if you didn’t own Beethoven’s greatest hits, you were missing out on THE MOST PROFOUND MUSIC EVER CONCEIVED BY THE MIND OF MAN.

Not the most welcoming invitation to classical music, but that’s the impression that generations have been given by an approach that takes Beethoven’s mighty work as its calling card. As well-worn as the work has become, it hasn’t lost its power to overwhelm. Majestic as the entire work is, its ferocious opening movement is particularly indelible: it’s one of the passages in Beethoven’s repertoire where even a 21st century listener can readily hear how the composer raised the stakes for all of music.

Beethoven composed the fifth in his mid-thirties, a period when his deafness was increasingly troubling him. In popular myth, the insistent theme of the first movement represents fate knocking at the composer’s door. To say…what, precisely? “The bad news is, you’re going to lose your hearing. The good news is, you’re going to become an immortal pillar of the musical arts. Sorry, did I come at a bad time?”

At least the reviews were good. Though the initial performance went poorly, E.T.A. Hoffmann later praised the score: “How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!” That makes it sound like a candidate for inclusion in Kubrick’s 2001. It wasn’t, but it did get sent into the stars: the symphony’s first movement appears on the Voyager Golden Record in company with the likes of a Brandenberg concerto movement, the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute, and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

In all of Beethoven, there may be no composition so definitively BEETHOVEN as this. The Ode to Joy may be even more famous, but it’s not the first piece you think of when you picture the composer’s glowering visage. That’s the fifth, speaking across the centuries with an urgency that seems unlikely ever to diminish.

Previously in Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection:
Symphonies 3 & 4
Symphonies 2 & 3
Symphonies 1 & 2

Yo-Yo Ma's 'Playhouse'

I’ve always imagined Yo-Yo Ma to be a fun-loving guy. From his photo op with a wombat to his inspired modern dance collaborations, Ma seems to be a guy willing to go the extra mile in the name of art, or simply having a good time.

NPR Music’s latest Field Recordings video does both: art + a good time.

From Anastasia Tsioulcas, writer and piece producer:

When you’re lucky enough to have cellist Yo-Yo Ma and members of the Silk Road Ensemble, some of the world’s premiere instrumentalists and composers, gather for an afternoon of offstage music making, you’ve got to think long and hard about where to put them. And we decided that the perfect match would be ACME Studio, a theatrical props warehouse in Brooklyn.

And if that weren’t enough, there are some fun animated GIFs from the session too.

If you had the afternoon to spend with Yo-Yo Ma, what would you do?

On the Air This Week

Highlights from March 25-April 1

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Feature: Jonathan S. LaFlamme, Director of Bands at Little Falls Community High School.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans. Joe and Mary Keyes, owners of Hibbing’s Howard Street Booksellers.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Feature: Jonathan S. LaFlamme, Director of Bands at Little Falls Community High School.

Thursday, 3 pm hour: Regional Spotlight: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays Bartok, from a recent Chopin Society recital.

Friday, The Minnesota Orchestra: Grammy-winning Sibelius.

Saturday, noon: Metropolitan Opera: Bellini’s La Sonnambula.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: Conventional Wisdom: A Chicago Collection.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, with conductor Edo de Waart.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen: Clara Schumann.

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: Dawn Upshaw sings Debussy and Ravel.

Tuesday, 7:15 am: School Spotlight.

Tuesday, noon: The April Fools.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: School Spotlight.

Osmo Fever gets its own clothing line

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With Michael Henson’s departure from the Minnesota Orchestra confirmed and Osmo Vänskä slated to return to Orchestra Hall for a series of concerts this weekend, music fans who have been clamoring for the return of Vänskä as the orchestra’s artistic director — or at least his return in some long-term capacity — are at a fever pitch of excitement, hoping that Vänskä’s return to the orchestra might be announced as soon as this week. In the meantime, many are looking to make their voices heard loud and clear: they want Osmo back.

Now, Vänskä fans can wear that message as well. An entity calling itself “MN Arts” is promoting t-shirts and sweatshirts reading “Bring Back Osmo!” and (in a reference to Vänskä’s country of origin) “Finnish it!” The shirts are being advertised via sponsored posts on Facebook.

I wrote to MN Arts on Facebook, asking who was behind the organization, and received this reply from the group’s Chip Martin. “We’re some parents and students seeing if we can raise some funds for MN Arts. Our kids have been heavily involved with [Minnesota Youth Symphony], the MN Boychoir, and lots of dance programs in the past. For our efforts to bring back Mr. Vänskä, at the request of my daughter who is a violist at Luther College now, we plan to contribute to [Save Our Symphony Minnesota] as we know they are active with the effort to bring back Mr. Vänskä.”

Clarifying that the group is independent of both Save Our Symphony and the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, Martin continues, “As this is our first crowd-funding effort, we do not have any history but intend to have an ‘open book’ policy for those interested. We are not a non-profit, nor are we an organization. Just trying to raise some funds for MN Arts. If successful with this initial campaign, we plan to do more in the future with various arts.”

The shirts are being sold through Teespring, a company that only puts shirts into production if a minimum number of orders are met. If at least 20 orders are placed for any of these designs, then no matter what happens between Vänskä and his once-and-perhaps-future employer, some local music fans will become owners of a poignant, wearable souvenir of this tumultuous season.

Click on Classical: The real Vivaldi, "Sherlock" and "Anchorman," choral magic


Every Monday morning at about 9:15, I join John Birge on Classical MPR to discuss some of the fun and fascinating stories we’re featuring on our site. Four stories we’ll be talking about this morning:

Musicologist Susan Orlando has been working for years to raise awareness of Antonio Vivaldi and to make his work available through the Naïve label’s Vivaldi Edition; when complete, the Vivaldi Edition will include performances of over 450 Vivaldi manuscripts held at the National University Library in Turin. This week, Gwen Hoberg spoke with Orlando about Vivaldi’s struggles (he had persistent breathing problems), and misconceptions about his life (the evidence doesn’t support portrayals of the composer, who worked with an orchestra of young women, as behaving inappropriately towards them), and the enduring appeal of this beloved musician.

Garrett Tiedemann conducted two tag-team interviews with pairs of film composers: David Arnold and Michael Price, composers of the music for the BBC series Sherlock; and John Nau and Andrew Feltenstein, composers of the score for Anchorman 2. Both pairs of interviewees play off each other with good humor and lend insight into the process of composing for such popular entertainments. Arnold and Price also field a few questions from our audience, including a question about what music best captures “focused madness.”

David Lindquist, a local singer, writes with fascination about the phenomenon of live choral music​: specifically, the way that audience members hear a unified sound while the singers are each worrying about producing specific pitches. Of course, no two listeners have exactly the same experience either. “How strange and wonderful it is,” writes David, “that in a hall filled with 1,500 people, 1,500 singular experiences occur simultaneously during a performance.”

Bach by the numbers

When it comes to celebrating famous birthdays, we all love the numbers that end in 0 and 5. But a 329th birthday? Pah.

When it comes to J.S. Bach, however, perhaps we should think again.


According to an article by The Guardian‘s Philip Oltermann, Bach’s 329th birthday is quite a big deal for scholars and numerologists:

Some researchers claim that the Baroque composer had an obsession with the number 14, the sum of the numeric value of the letters in his surname (B+A+C+H = 2+1+3+8 = 14). The numbers 3, 2 and 9 also add up to 14 – and all this 14 years into the 21st century. Coincidence?

Oltermann goes on to report that the Bach Museum in the composer’s hometown of Eisenach, Germany, will feature an exhibition this year that explores J.S. Bach’s fascination with numbers and number puzzles. One of the items on display includes a painting in which Bach wears a vest with 14 buttons and holds a drinking cup with a 14-point monogram.

There is some scholarly debate about the 14 obsession, but the idea of a composer being fond of numbers isn’t difficult to imagine. You can read Oltermann’s entire article about Bach and numerals here.

Go inside a composer's apartment

For composer Timo Andres, home is where the art is.

According to New York City’s classical-music radio station WQXR, “Connecticut-born Andres likens his music to ‘walking into an interesting apartment and seeing a few things next to each other that tell you something about a person.’ ”

How appropriate, then, that Andres recently invited WQXR into his apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., to talk about where he lives and works:

Andres is in St. Paul, Minn., this week; he’ll be one of the speakers featured in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Composer Conversation series event tomorrow night, Thursday, March 20, at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall.

On the Air This Week

Highlights from March 18 to 25

Tuesday, 7:15 am: School Spotlight: Apple Valley Wind Ensemble.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: naturalist Teresa Root.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: School Spotlight: Apple Valley Wind Ensemble.

Thursday, 3 pm hour: Regional Spotlight: Arensky’s Piano Trio, from River Falls, Wis.

Friday, 8 pm: Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Erin Keefe in recital.

Saturday, noon: Metropolitan Opera: Wozzeck, by Alban Berg.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: Bach Alive.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra plays concertos for orchestra.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen: Bach, Transformed.

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: Edo de Waart conducts Stravinsky and Beethoven.

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Feature: Jonathan S. LaFlamme, Director of Bands at Little Falls Community High School.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: Joe and Mary Keyes, owners of Hibbing’s Howard Street Booksellers.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Feature: Jonathan S. LaFlamme, Director of Bands at Little Falls Community High School.

Click on Classical: Bass ace, Poe premieres, chamber fiddle


Every Monday morning at about 9:15, I’ll be joining John Birge on Classical MPR to discuss some of the fun and fascinating stories we’re featuring on our site. Three stories we’ll be talking about this morning:

• Anna George Meek’s “alto’s-eye view of choral music,” published last month, quickly became one of our all-time most-read articles on We’ve now followed it up with “A bass’s-eye view of choral music” by Jim Ramlet. Jim says “it’s not all beer and Skittles in the back row,” and describes a Rachmaninoff performance that sent the entire second bass section down to a low B flat, earning an audience member to spontaneously volunteer what Jim calls “the best review ever.”

• The Fargo-Moorhead Opera has been a going concern for almost 46 years, but they’ve never produced a world premiere–until this month, and now they’re staging two on March 28 and 30. Austin Gerth writes about the opera’s decision to stage full productions of Buried Alive and Embedded: two short operas inspired by the writing of Edgar Allen Poe. The operas, commissioned by New York City opera incubator the American Lyric Theatre, were composed by Jeff Meyers with co-librettist Quincy Long. “Why would you not come?” says Fargo-Moorhead Opera director David Hamilton. “It’s cool, it’s new, it’s something different. It’s a way of showing that we’re not just this little city in the frozen tundra with nothing to do.”

• There’s a lot you can do with a violin, and Orange Mighty Trio member Zack Kline is holding a summer camp designed to teach kids how to bridge Beethoven and bluegrass. In what Kline is calling a “chamber fiddle camp,”​ kids will learn how to combine music theory and classical techniques with improvisation and folk playing. Sheila Regan talks with Kline about his innovative approach.