On the Air This Week

Highlights from April 29 to May 6

Tuesday, 7:15 am: School Spotlight: 2013 State 4-5-6 Children’s Honor Choir.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: writer Laura Vosika.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: School Spotlight: 2013 State 4-5-6 Children’s Honor Choir.

Wednesday, 7 pm: Carnegie Hall Live: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform Britten’s War Requiem.

Thursday, 3 pm hour: Regional Spotlight: pianist Inon Barnatan, from a recent Chopin Society recital.

Friday, 8 pm: Minnesota Orchestra: live from the newly remodeled Northrop Auditorium.

Saturday, noon: Metropolitan Opera: I Puritani, by Vincenzo Bellini.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: Conventional Wisdom: Capital Treasures.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: Russian music, played by the Minnesota Orchestra.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen: Cinco de Mayo.

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Feature.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: Joe Chvala, director of Flying Foot Forum.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Feature.

Lending new meaning to "high notes"

Homer Simpson, making a case for his fandom of the band Grand Funk Railroad, extols “the bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher.”

Soon, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s Karl Fenner and his colleagues may join the ranks of bong-rattling bassists.

The Denver Post reported today that the Colorado Symphony Orchestra announced a series of performances sponsored by that state’s legal cannabis industry:

The concerts, organized by pro-pot promoter Edible Events, will start May 23 with three bring-your-own marijuana events at the Space Gallery in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district and culminate with a large, outdoor performance at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Sept. 13. They are being billed as fundraisers for the CSO, which will curate a themed program of classical music for each show.

In a refrain that is common among many orchestras, the CSO’s executive director Jerry Kern says the concerts are also intended to reach new audiences. “We see ourselves as connecting classical music with all of Colorado,” Kern told the Denver Post. “Part of our goal is to bring in a younger audience and a more diverse audience, and I would suggest that the patrons of the cannabis industry are both younger and more diverse than the patrons of the symphony orchestra.”

Details about the concert series, dubbed “Classically Cannibis,” have been posted to the CSO’s website. The evening’s many food offerings are listed (as the attendees may likely develop an appetite), and prospective ticket buyers are told explicitly “This is a cannabis-friendly event being held on private property. But cannabis will NOT be sold at this event; it’s strictly BYOC (bring your own cannabis).”

The CSO’s event page includes a 223-word disclaimer; concertgoers are encouraged to avoid driving to the event, they must be 21 or older to attend, and there is a well-meaning-albeit-broken hyperlink to the state of Colorado’s website that describes the health effects of using marijuana.

Orchestras working to reach new audiences is nothing new; the Minnesota Orchestra, for example, has concerts planned for this summer that feature repertoire from Bugs Bunny cartoons, Broadway musicals and from Pixar films, as well as its usual offerings of Young People’s and Friends & Family concerts.

The CSO’s Classically Cannabis concert series stands among that organization’s similar efforts to connect with its local audiences. “Denver is a different kind of city,” trumpet player Justin Bartels told the Denver Post, “and you have to program your orchestra for the community you’re in.”

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 5 & 6

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In my most recent post in this series, I referred to the “staccato” opening statement of the fifth symphony. A reader corrected me: “The first movement’s theme is not marked staccato.” I thanked the reader and made a correction.

The error reflected a fact I don’t generally shout from the rooftops: I’m not classically trained. I can’t read music; the best I can do is strum chords on a guitar, banjo, or ukulele. My understanding of “staccato” was loose; I was aware that it was a musical term, but hadn’t given much thought to the fact that something that sounds, to my casual ear, generally along the lines of what I think of as “staccato” might not be precisely that.

My error — which I happily acknowledge was necessary and appropriate to correct, and am grateful to have been made aware of — caused me to start thinking about what it means to write about classical music as someone who’s not classically trained. What are the limitations inherent in doing so? How is the perspective of someone who can’t read music different than the perspective of someone who can?

(While we’re in brutal full-disclosure mode, let’s also acknowledge that I have poor pitch: music teachers asked me not to sing in school musicals beyond grade school, and when I was once cast in a lead role with a vocal solo, the director asked me to try rapping it.)

Music is a rich art form, and there are many different dimensions to approaching and appreciating it. Though my parents didn’t make me take piano lessons–and I absolutely did not want to — when I was a kid, I was introduced to classical music at home. In addition to my dad’s records — the very ones I’m listening to right now, in fact — there were TV and movies.

Like generations of kids, I remember Disney’s Fantasia as being one of my first introductions to classical music; John Williams’s Star Wars score — shamelessly cribbing from the playbooks of Wagner, Holst, and Stravinsky — showed me, as well as many of my fellow Gen-Xers, the power of the symphony orchestra. Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons (1981) was a family favorite, so my siblings and I learned to associate Vivaldi’s stirring strings with the dramatic passing of each Minnesota season.

Still, classical music wasn’t something I’d felt I had cultural permission to own. By “own,” I mean not just literally owning records, but owning it as something I actively listened to and felt invested in. In modern consumer culture, music isn’t just something we listen to for enjoyment, it’s something we use to represent our identities to others. Wearing an R.E.M. t-shirt was cool…but would it be okay for me to wear a Beethoven t-shirt?

I started slowly, buying budget CDs of The Four Seasons and The Planets when I was in college. I started subscribing to BBC Music Magazine, which includes a complete work on CD with every issue. I read books and guides, the best of all being Jan Swafford’s Vintage Guide to Classical Music, still one of the best-written books — on any subject — I’ve ever read.

(Swafford actually lived down the street from me when I was at Harvard for grad school, and though we never met, sometimes when my roommate and I were walking home late after having a few drinks at the bar, we’d bellow, “Schoenberg! SCHOENBERG!” Sorry, Jan.)

When I finished grad school and became an arts journalist, I’d amassed enough experience with classical music that I felt confident enough to occasionally write about it: occasional reviews, news articles, and think-pieces that drew on my sociological study of cultural fields — where classical music looms large in any discussion of “high,” “low,” “middlebrow,” “nobrow,” or what have you.

I was excited, last fall, to be hired at Minnesota Public Radio, where I split my time between Classical MPR and the Current. Though my new colleagues have been very generous and enthusiastic in their offers of support if I ever were to feel lost in the musical weeds, I was still a little nervous. I love classical music, and I know a fair bit about it — but could I ever really know classical music without technical training? Would I forever be, in some sense, an outsider?

As it happened, shortly after I started at MPR, I met the stage director Peter Sellars — well-known in the classical music world for his collaborations with composers and performers including, most notably, John Adams. Adams has praised Sellars for the musical sensitivity that makes him a superb collaborator despite the fact that Sellars isn’t classically trained, and I asked Peter if he had any advice for me as a classical-music latecomer going to work at a classical music station.

Peter smiled. “When something is happening in the music,” he said, “you know. Don’t you? Your toes curl. You just know.”

The symphony I’m listening to right now, Beethoven’s Pastoral, is one that my dad describes listening to in Naples when he lived there during his U.S. Navy service. Dad and his friends would sit out on Dad’s balcony, drink a little wine, and blast the sixth. Dad doesn’t have much more musical training than I do, but over 40 years later, he still remembers how on those Italian summer evenings, there was nothing like Beethoven.

When something is happening, you know. You just know.

Previously in Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection:
Symphonies 4 & 5
Symphonies 3 & 4
Symphonies 2 & 3
Symphonies 1 & 2

Click on Classical: "Messiah" controversy, musical homes, and the standing o


Each Monday morning at 9:15, I join John Birge on Classical MPR to discuss some of the stories we’re featuring on our website. Here are the stories we’ll be discussing today.

Most listeners hear Handel’s Messiah​ as a joyous celebration of the life of Christ, but one musicologist has discovered what he describes as a disturbing anti-Judaic subtext. Michael Marissen took a close look at the libretto assembled by the composer’s friend Charles Jennens, and Marissen argues that the text was edited to underline anti-Judaic readings of the prayers and Bible passages, readings that were then common among Christian theologians. I wrote about Marissen’s argument, and why the scholar says he still loves Handel’s music.

Our contributor Gwen Hoberg is about to become a homeowner for the first time, and she says that what she’s most excited about is the music she’s going to make there. Read her essay to learn about the various ways Gwen is planning to bring music into her new house, and how she’s managed to practice french horn in her apartment for the past ten years without a single complaint from the neighbors.

Also this week, Gwen transcribes a conversation with her fellow horn player Kayla Nelson in which the two discuss the perennially controversial topic of standing ovations. The two agree on something that many audience members have observed but which we don’t as often hear from performers: there are way too many standing Os in classical music today, they say. Read Gwen’s post​ to find out what they’d rather have audience members do instead of jumping to their feet.

Giving the viola some respect

The viola is the instrument musicians love to tease — so much so, that there is an entire category of jokes about them. Classical MPR’s Steve Staruch is a violist, but he loves viola jokes. There’s a German expression, Was sich liebt, das neckt sich — “Those who love each other, tease each other”; in other words, teasing is a sign of affection. So here are three displays of affection for the viola:

How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune?

The bow is moving.

What’s the difference between a viola and an onion?

No one cries when you cut up a viola.

Why don’t violists play hide and seek?

Because no one will look for them.

Amusing as that last joke is, the reality, of course, is different. Music benefactors Linda and Stuart Nelson deliberately sought out violist Paul Neubauer and offered to commission a new work for him, and Neubauer thought, “Why not a viola concerto, and why not have Aaron Jay Kernis write that viola concerto?”

The resulting work received its world premiere with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra just last night (Thursday, April 24), and a new video released by the SPCO takes viewers inside Kernis’s new Viola Concerto, from both the composer’s and musician’s points of view.

In the video, Kernis says his new concerto is “uniquely tailored for Paul and the viola” because Neubauer “draws so many beautiful colors out of the instrument.” Over the course of the nearly seven-minute video, Kernis and Neubauer provide a sort of hop-on/hop-off tour of the work, discussing each movement and its influences and inspirations.

“I hope audiences have a very strong reaction to this piece,” Kernis says, “and [I] hope that it will find its way out in the world with such an amazing soloist and wonderful musician at its center.”

Neubauer adds, “I hope 20 years from now, this becomes a staple of the [viola] repertoire.”

Watch the video to learn more about this new piece. The SPCO and Neubauer will perform it again tonight and tomorrow, April 25 and 26, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.

What do you think of this new work? Did you attend the concert? Are you planning to attend one of them this weekend? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

On the Air This Week

Highlights from April 22 to 29

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Feature.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: luthier John Waddle.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Feature.

Tuesday, 8 pm: Choral Hero: Dale Warland’s Minnesota Voices.

Thursday, 3 pm hour: Regional Spotlight: pianist Inon Barnatan, from a recent Chopin Society recital.

Thursday, 8 pm: The Metropolitan Symphony and Minnesota Chorale perform Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Saturday, noon: Metropolitan Opera: Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: Hector Olivera in Concert.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: Emanuel Ax plays Brahms with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Sunday, 5 pm: Minnesota Varsity Showcase Concert.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen: Why Choral Music?

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Tuesday, 7:15 am: School Spotlight.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: School Spotlight.

Beloved as he is in Minnesota, Osmo Vanska still needs a job

It’s fair to infer Osmo Vänskä is earning plenty of frequent-flyer points.

In January alone, the former music director of the Minnesota Orchestra conducted the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva, the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv, and the Orchestra National de Lyon in its eponymous city in France. A little more than a week ago, Vänskä was in Amsterdam to conduct the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. And this week, as the Washington Post‘s Anne Midgette reports, Vänskä is in Washington, D.C., to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra.

Osmo Vänskä has been seeing his fair share of airports lately (MPR file photo/Minnesota Orchestra)

Freelancing has its benefits. “There is a temptation to think about doing only guest conducting, because you don’t need to take all the headaches that the music director has to,” Vänskä told Midgette.

But there was a suggestion the man would prefer a full-time job. “I have always had an orchestra,” Vänskä said to Midgette, “let’s call it my own orchestra, since ’85.”

In Midgette’s article, Minnesota Orchestra Principal Trombonist Doug Wright describes Vänskä as “a good fit” and says life would be “easier and better all around” if Vänskä did return to his former post in Minneapolis. But Wright acknowledges, “Obviously, if he doesn’t come back, we will go find a new music director.”

Add to this speculation the recent news reported in The Guardian that the Royal Concertgebouw’s current director, Mariss Jansons, announced he will resign his position as chief conductor of that orchestra after its 2014-15 season.

Could the prestige of the Royal Concertgebouw, the excellent quality of life in the Netherlands, and the shorter trip back to his native Finland be enticements to Vänskä?

“It’s obvious that I am still living with many question marks,” Vänskä told the Washington Post‘s Midgette. “I need to get more answers to those questions. When I get those answers, then it’s time to make decisions.”

Click on Classical: Gregorian chant gets a remix, composers pair up, and listeners pick the best choral work of all time

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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. Here are the stories we’ll be talking about today.

Among musical genres, Gregorian chant and hip-hop are a pretty unlikely couple. Ricky O’Bannon, though, found a clever interpolation of the traditional Dies Irae chant in “The Second Coming,” a rap song by Just Blaze and Julez Santana. The artists didn’t sample the chant, they turned it into a beat with a musical twist that underscores the themes of both the song and the traditional requiem. Hear the song, and read Ricky’s analysis, here.

Speaking of couples, Garrett Tiedemann noticed that composers are working in duos more and more frequently when composing for film and TV. That’s not a common practice among concert composers–though Mozart and Haydn, for example, were good friends, they never shared a musical byline–so why is it becoming routine among composers working in film and TV scoring? Garrett explains why, and lists several pairs of composers whose work you should know.

We’re celebrating choral music this month on Classical MPR, and what’s a celebration without a little competition? We want to know what the greatest choral works of all time are, and we’re asking you to help us choose. Until midnight April 25, you can vote for your top five choral compositions​; on April 30, we’ll be counting down the top 25.

On the Air This Week

Highlights from April 15 to 21

Tuesday, 7:15 am: School Spotlight: the Litchfield High School Dragonaires.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: Janet Tollund, travel agent and consultant.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: School Spotlight: the Litchfield High School Dragonaires.

Thursday, 3 pm hour: Regional Spotlight: The National Lutheran Choir.

Friday, 10am: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Saturday, 11 am: Metropolitan Opera: Arabella, by Richard Strauss.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: An Easter Offering.

Sunday, noon: Handel’s Messiah, performed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Sunday, 8 pm: From Darkness to Light, with Bob Christiansen and Valerie Kahler.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen.

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Feature.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: luthier John Waddle.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Feature.

Click on Classical: Pops with chops, most popular composers


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. This week we featured two groups with the kind of skills you find in top choirs and orchestras, but who perform pop-friendly repertoire — and have the screaming fans that go with it.

Our choral stream producer Tesfa Wondemagegnehu talked with Brian Newhouse about the vocal group Pentatonix, a five-person a capella group whose fans go wild for their sweet harmonies and energetic covers of songs by the likes of Pharrell, Lorde, and Christina Aguilera. Read the conversation between Tesfa and Brian to learn why choral music geeks are starting to take this fun group very seriously. Also, be sure to visit ClassicalMPR.org tonight — Monday, April 14 — at 7:00 p.m. to follow a live chat between Tesfa and Conspirare co-founder Craig Hella Johnson.

Meanwhile, Sheila Regan profiles Well-Strung, a string quartet that also sings — and dances. They can toss off chamber-music masterpieces, but they typically don’t get very far into the likes of Eine klein Nachtmusik ​before breaking into a pop hit like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Click here to see them do their thing — and to learn the eyebrow-raising name of the very forthright musical group that some of the group members were performing in when they met.

Can you guess who the most frequently performed composers are? Since 2000, the League of American Orchestras have been keeping tabs on all performances by their member orchestras. Eleanor Peterson lists the top ten composers and​ the top ten most frequently performed works; click here to see what they are. See if you can guess which composer, regarded by many music critics as the greatest musical mind of all time, doesn’t even make the top ten.​