The Music of Living Composers

When people find out that I’m a composer, one of my favorite reactions is, “wait… people still do that?”

It’s true! Not all of the music heard in concert halls was written by composers who have been dead for hundreds of years, though it certainly makes up the majority (by a wide margin) of what we hear. On occasion, audiences can also hear the music of the living.

There are some interesting numbers revealed by a recent analysis of the performance seasons of the 22 largest American symphony orchestras. Most notably, during the 2014-2015 season, 11.8 percent of the pieces performed by these 22 orchestras were pieces written by living composers (the most frequently performed living composer this season is John Adams, with 35 performances).

Though those numbers appear to be small, it does seem that audiences are becoming increasingly open and willing to try to connect with new music. The opening 30 seconds of the trailer for the film “(Untitled)” seems to capture the essence of the ‘weird’ music that audiences tend to be intimidated by (an interesting aside — this film was scored by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang):

What do you think? What’s your reaction to opening up a concert program to find that you’ll be hearing music written by a living composer?

Unexpected yet welcome music for traveling

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (MPR photo/Luke Taylor)

This week marks one of the USA’s busiest travel periods of the year. According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation, during the six-day Thanksgiving travel period, the number of long-distance trips — more than 50 miles away — increases by 54 percent.

I won’t be going anywhere at Thanksgiving, but I’m looking forward to seeing visitors from out of town. Due to a couple weddings at the start of October and of November, I paid my travel dues early; both weddings were a bit further afield, necessitating air travel.

Airports are rather fascinating places. The mass of humanity that moves through any major airport on a given day is astounding. For example, the Airports Council International reports that Atlanta International Airport saw almost 9 million passengers in July 2014 alone, the most recent month for which complete statistics are available.

But aside from hard statistics, airports represent a fleeting snapshot in time: At a given moment at an airport, all those hundreds or even thousands of people are in one place at the same time, seeing one another, interacting, bumping into each other; but fast-forward a few hours, and they’re scattered around the globe.

With all those people gathered in one place — even if just for a few hours at a time — major airports resemble cities unto themselves. Atlanta’s airport has an underground train that seems a counterpart to its citywide MARTA system; Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has restaurants with seating areas alongside concourses resembling sidewalk terraces; Chicago’s Midway Airport largely eschews national restaurant chains in favor of local flavor, with food options like Gold Coast Dogs, Miller’s Pub and Nuts on Clark.

WPA muralAnd a city devoid of culture is not much of a city at all; thus public art has found its way into airports. Tampa International Airport features a series of restored WPA murals; MSP features aviation-inspired Snoopy statues; Atlanta has a gallery dedicated to artwork created by local youth. Chicago’s O’Hare Airport even has an indoor garden from which its more foodie-leaning restaurants gather fresh produce.

Naturally, music is also part of that artistic landscape. Julie Amacher met a guitarist at the Portland (Ore.) Airport, and you can read about him and listen to his music on this week’s New Classical Tracks. A few months ago, Bob Collins of MPR News shared this video of a pop-up pianist in a departure lounge in Prague. In October, Elena See found this video of a cellist and a beatbox artist collaborating on a piece by Bach while in flight.

Recently I discovered this video of some kids at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, returning from a piano camp in Austria, entertaining fellow passengers between connecting flights. Notice the people capturing the moment on their smartphones, or the fellow at left enjoying a glass of white wine as the kids play; sure, the scene was recorded in an airport concourse, but it could just as easily have taken place in the center of a town.

So if you’re traveling this Thanksgiving holiday, what music will you seek? If you’re traveling long-distance by car or by train, what music will you bring with you? If by air, what music will you listen to in flight? What might you encounter at the airport? If you happen to come across something remarkable, please share it with us — Tweet it to us if you’d like, or tell us about it in the comments below.

Safe travels, and happy Thanksgiving!

On the Air This Week

Highlights from November 24 to December 1

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

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: William Craft, president of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: School Spotlight: Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies Symphony Orchestra.

Tuesday, 8 pm: Lucerne Festival: Vienna Philharmonic.

Wednesday, 7 pm: Giving Thanks with John Birge.

Thursday, 10 am: Giving Thanks with John Birge.

Thursday, Noon: Thanksgiving with Cantus.

Thursday, 3pm: Regional Spotlight: Pavel Kolesnikov plays Mozart, from a recent Chopin Society recital.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: New in Nashville.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: The Berlin Philharmonic with conductor Simon Rattle, from the 2014 Berlin Music Festival.

Sunday, 5 pm: Advent Voices with Lynne Warfel.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen.

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: Symphonies by Haydn and Schubert, and Barber’s Violin Concerto.

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Feature: Tim Buzza, Music Specialist at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Feature: Tim Buzza, Music Specialist at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis.

Click on Classical: Chopin's heart exhumed, kids and classical, from Minnesota Varsity to Miss Music City

classical baby 425.jpg

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

Chopin is buried in Paris, but his heart is entombed in his native Poland. On April 14, we’ve just discovered, the heart was secretly exhumed to be sure it remained preserved as it floats in alcohol. The heart, it turns out, is doing just fine.

How do you introduce children to classical music? We had two parents’ perspectives this week: John Hierlinger wrote about bringing his kids to a family concert by the SPCO, and Carl Atiya Swanson wrote about the soundtrack of fatherhood.

The deadline for submitting to Minnesota Varsity is coming up — don’t delay if you want to be the next Aria Stiles, an Apple Valley violinist who’s now in the running to be Miss Tennessee.

Click on Classical this Weekend: stories of instruments

Manuel Rosales built the organ at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in conjunction with a design from architect Frank Gehry. The organ turns 10 years old this month. (Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC)

This weekend, take some time to look into stories about three wonderful instruments: the bassoon, the guitar and the pipe organ.

The bassoonist’s view of the orchestra

This weekend, the Minnesota Orchestra honors the career of longtime bassoonist John Miller, Jr., celebrating 44 years of performance. In the run-up to the concerts, the first of which will air on Classical MPR on Friday, Nov. 21, at 8 p.m., Miller’s fellow bassoonist Norbert Nielubowski has written a delightful essay on the bassoonist’s view of the orchestra. You’ll laugh and you’ll learn.

Celebrate Minneapolis-born guitarist extraordinaire, Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin’s new box set of CDs, entitled 5 Classic Albums is featured on New Classical Tracks this week; you can even enter for a chance to win a copy of the box set. What’s more, Sharon is the subject of a new documentary called Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, which we just found out will air on Twin Cities Public Television on Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, at 9:30 p.m. Get a sense of what the documentary is about by watching the trailer.

A great big pipe organ turns 10 years old

Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles is the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s also home to a 6,000-pipe organ, which celebrates its 10th birthday this weekend. In fact, Michael Barone, host of American Public Media’s Pipedreams, is on his way to Los Angeles this weekend to host the festivities. We can’t all travel to Los Angeles, but thanks to John Rabe at our sister station KPCC in L.A., we can take a virtual tour of the organ with this slideshow.

Have a great weekend!

Rachel Hutton weighs in on #Grapegate

Grapes ready for harvest (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

By now you’ve probably heard about what’s been dubbed #Grapegate — the story in which the New York Times posits that something called Grape Salad is the signature dish of a traditional Minnesota Thanksgiving.

Problem is, pretty much nobody in Minnesota has heard of Grape Salad.

Today, Minnesota Monthly editor Rachel Hutton — whom you hear every Friday morning with John Birge on Classical MPR’s “Moveable Feast” — went on New York public radio station WNYC’s The Takeaway to speak to host John Hockenberry. “As a Minnesota foodie,” the show’s website puts it, “[Rachel] explains why New Yorkers have such a hard time understanding the food of the Midwest.”

At the top of the interview, Hockenberry describes Grape Salad as someone familiar with the recipe. “John, I’m impressed that you’ve heard of Grape Salad,” Rachel says, “because everyone else that I’ve talked to seems to have never heard of it before.”

In the course of the conversation, Rachel describes how she contacted her mother to get to the bottom of this mysterious dish. Later, she and Hockenberry speculate on Grape Salad and other recipes for Thanksgiving. “We maybe should embrace the grape,” Rachel suggests, “maybe people could make this recipe for Thanksgiving and enjoy it.”

Listen to the complete interview here; it runs just a bit more than four minutes:

Flying with instruments is touch and go

Time for Three (Neilson Barnard)

Whenever there’s a news story about a musician who has experienced trouble getting on a plane with his or her instrument, someone usually asks me if I’ve ever had a problem flying with my cello.

I’m happy (?) to report that I don’t have a $100,000 instrument and don’t play for a living, so I can put my virtually-indestructible carbon-fiber “travel” cello into a beat-up case with a bunch of padding (old beach towels), send it through as checked baggage, and restring it upon landing.

Professional musicians with precious instruments don’t have that luxury. Add to that the confusing lack of consistency between airlines; the choices seem to be:

  • Buy an extra seat.
  • Don’t buy an extra seat — carry it on.
  • Pack it in a travel case and check it.

But … what works with one airline doesn’t necessarily work with the next; for example, the Strad reports on the latest travel blues experienced by the ensemble Time for Three:

US Airways has once again denied access to a member of string ensemble Time for Three with his instrument. Double Bassist Ranaan Meyer (pictured) was told by the airline’s supervisor and shift manager at Los Angeles International Airport that he would not be permitted to fly home to Philadelphia with his bass after appearing on television show ‘Dancing with the Stars’ on Monday night.

After being told he would not be on the flight, Meyer posted this message to YouTube:

Fortunately, Meyer was eventually able to get home:

Do you travel with an instrument? What challenges have you faced? Any advice to share? Post in the comments section below.

On the Air This Week

Highlights from November 18 to 24

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Feature: Steven Schmitz, Director of Bands, St. Louis Park.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: amateur bassoonist Kate Cimino.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Feature: Steven Schmitz, Director of Bands, St. Louis Park.

Tuesday, 8 pm: Lucerne Festival: The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam.

Thursday, 3:15 pm: Regional Spotlight: Rossini, played by the Minnesota Sinfonia.

Friday, 8 pm: Minnesota Orchestra: A Celebration of Bassoon, and Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: With Praise and Thanksgiving.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in works by Schumann and Brahms.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen.

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, and Beethoven’s 6th Symphony.

Tuesday, 7:15 am: School Spotlight.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: School Spotlight.