Click on Classical: What's the best Nutcracker?

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

​This week Garrett Tiedemann interviewed French composer Laurent Girard, who practices a fusion of classical, ambient, pop, and what he calls “folktronica.” That’s pretty new — but of course all music was once new, and Cinda Yager grew up with parents who thought even Mahler wasn’t “real” music. Cinda writes about how she learned to open her mind to the sounds of the 20th century.

Many people like to listen to The Nutcracker during December — but what’s the best Nutcracker​ to cue up? I listened to eight leading recordings of Tchaikovsky’s complete ballet, and I published a guide that will help you choose the right recording​ whether you’re baking cookies or popping cocktails.

Click on Classical this Weekend: lutefisk, carols and hoops

Your vote can help determine the playlist for Carol with Classical MPR on Friday, Dec. 19 (Alexandra Beier/Getty Images)

As the holidays approach, here are some must-see stories on our website to enhance your seasonal cheer:

Get a first-timer’s look at the St. Olaf Christmas Festival

A couple weeks ago, my colleague Alison Young interviewed a couple of women for whom the St. Olaf Christmas Festival has always been part of their lives. But what about for those who’ve never been there? Digital producer Jay Gabler recently attended the St. Olaf Christmas Festival for the first time in his life, and he shared his thoughts about the experience. If you’ve never attended, perhaps this may inspire you to try it next year.

Vote for your favorite Christmas carols

We’re trying something new this year: next Friday, Dec. 19, we’re airing a new, live, holiday special called Carol with Classical MPR in which The Singers will perform beloved carols during a radio broadcast, and we want you to sing along. But before then, we want your input as to which are your favorite carols. Visit this page to cast your vote for your favorite seasonal songs. Feel free to vote early and often.

Read about a different type of December ritual

My colleague Bill Morelock wrote a wonderful essay this week in which he describes a different December ritual that’s nothing to do with holly or jolly: Bill writes about basketball. More specifically, Bill describes his experience as a high school and college player, and how a particular basketball scrimmage in the 1970s remains an important touchstone for him to this day. It’s a thoughtful reflection and I encourage you to read it.

And don’t forget — for a charming musical vignette, watch how Farmer Derek Klingenberg uses “Jingle Bells’ to encourage his cows to come home.

Have a great weekend!

Composer conversations get at the heart of making music

Missy Mazzoli
“All music was once new,” goes the sign off each day for The Composers Datebook.

Maybe that’s self-evident, yet to fans of classical music, it can still sound a little startling. We cherish classical music in large part for its timelessness — the capacity to speak across generations and centuries. At best, its power is at once enduring and time-specific, universal and personal.

But if great music tunes us in to the eternal, it’s still grounded in the time and place of its original creation, the moment of its being “once new.” It’s easy to forget, as we return again and again to our favorite masterworks, that classical music (broadly defined) is a living art form, not only because centuries-old works continue to invite exhilarating new interpretations, but as importantly because it continues to incorporate the present-day works of living composers.

Intended for music lovers of all stripes, Composer Conversations is an informal sit-down with some of our time’s best emerging and established living composers, and some of the artists who perform their music. Now in its third year and hosted by Top Score‘s Emily Reese, the series explores its guests’ inspirations, artistic history, and current projects, offering a glimpse into the processes and people behind the compositions.

The 2015 Composer Conversations will welcome Kevin Puts (Feb. 18); Bryce Dessner with special guests Carolyn Shaw and Richard Reed Perry (April 2); Fred Lerdahl (April 22); and Missy Mazzoli (May 8). All conversations take place at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall in downtown St. Paul. Tickets are free, but reservations are required.

Past Composer Conversations guests include Laurie Anderson, Maria Schneider, John Luther Adams, Shawn Jaeger, Nicola Campogrande, John Harbison, Sufjan Stevens, Vivian Fung, Timo Andres, Gabriel Kahane, and Dawn Upshaw.

Cows and 'Jingle Bells'

Farmer Derek Klingenberg (YouTube)

Is there anything that screams “It’s Christmas!” more than a bunch of cows getting giddy over popcorn and “Jingle Bells”? No. The answer is no. And is it just me or do they seem to be bobbing along in time to the song?? Can it be? It’s a Christmas miracle! (Or maybe just shaky camera work.)

And just who is this Farmer Derek? Clearly a guy who likes his job, likes music, and gets a big kick out of sharing the spirit of the season with cows — and with us. He’s on Facebook, if you want to read more or watch more of his videos.

On the Air This Week

Highlights from December 9 to 16

Tuesday, 7:15 am: School Spotlight: Alexandria Concert Choir.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: Dr. Dan Yoon.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: School Spotlight: Alexandria Concert Choir.

Wednesday, noon: A Hollywood Holiday.

Thursday, 11 am: Cantus: Live at Westminster.

Thursday, 3 pm: Regional Spotlight: recent holiday performances from all over the state.

Thursday, 6 pm: Taste of the Holidays.

Thursday, 7 pm: Wonder Tidings.

Friday, 7 pm: Light and Gold: Christmas with Eric Whitacre.

Saturday, 11am: The Metropolitan Opera: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: Approaching Christmas.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen.

Monday, 7 pm: : Christmas with Luther College.

Tuesday, noon: Candles Burning Brightly.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.

Tuesday, 7 pm: Concordia Christmas.

Nystedt legacy continues with Knut's grandson

Håkon Daniel Nystedt is artistic director for the Oslo Chamber Choir (photo by Helge Lien)

Knut Nystedt, who passed away this week at the age of 99, left a lasting mark on the world of music. Meanwhile, Nystedt’s grandson, Håkon Daniel Nystedt, continues his grandfather’s legacy as conductor of the Oslo Chamber Choir (Oslo Kammerkor).

The Oslo Chamber Choir did a perfchat on Performance Today during my time with the program, and it became one of the all-time listener favorites of 2009 — people went wild for these elegiac Nordic songs, some of which were layerings of folk songs with other classical choral works (Bruckner, etc.). Asked about the lingering melancholy of these songs, Håkon Daniel Nystedt joked the emotion “is our speciality.”

You can listen to the Oslo Chamber Choir’s 2009 performances from Performance Today here:

PART I: Grieg and A Wedding March

PART II: Sheep herding songs and Rachmaninoff

One of the most beautiful works on the choir’s 2012 CD Strid (“Struggle”) is Håkon Daniel Nystedt’s own arrangement of The Bridal March of Myllarguten.

The CD was featured on New Classical Tracks with Julie Amacher; you can also listen to the disc via Spotify:

Knut Nystedt Dies at Age 99

Nystedt was appointed Commander of Order of St. Olav in 2005 for his efforts in Norwegian music. He has also received numerous other awards and honors. (Photo: Lars O. Flydal / Vårt Land)

Grammy Award-winning Norwegian conductor, composer and organist extraordinaire, Knut Nystedt, died yesterday at age 99. Nystedt’s music has made a lasting impression amongst classical musicians across the globe.

One of my favorite compositions is this setting of Bach’s Komm, süßer Tod, komm selge Ruh where he splits the choir into 5 groups and infuses assigned, timed movement to the traditional chorale setting. The final product is hauntingly beautiful…

May he rest in peace …

Helene Grimaud to play in a flooded armory

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As the New York Times notes, New York’s Park Avenue Armory is big enough that it once housed the three orchestras required to perform Stockhausen’s Gruppen. Now, Helene Grimaud is playing a series of solo recitals in the space — but the vast armory won’t be empty. As Grimaud plays, the armory around the pianist will slowly flood with water.

Grimaud’s performances, which will take place on ten evenings over the course of a period starting tomorrow and concluding on Dec. 21, are part of tears become… streams become…, an art installation by the acclaimed conceptual artist Douglas Gordon. “I once saw a small boy playing the piano with one hand,” Gordon told the Times regarding the piece’s inspiration, “and wiping away tears with the other. The tears ran down his face and onto his hand and then onto the keys of the piano. It stuck with me, those tears.”

Gordon and his team have equipped the armory for full-on flooding, complete with elaborate waterproof flooring and a piping system that will flood the floor with 122,000 gallons of water and then suck the water back up at the end of each performance.

As the water seeps over the floor, Grimaud will play a program of works inspired by water — such as Ravel’s Jeux d’Eaux and Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral. She’ll perform in an outfit custom-designed by the French designer agnes b.; Gordon told ArtNews that the costume is “incredibly sexy.”

Grimaud will be playing a concert grand lent by Steinway — but only after Gordon and his engineers assured Steinway that they’d keep the air in the Armory at zero percent humidity by maintaining air temperature in the 70s and water temperature in the 50s. That non-destructive approach is new for Gordon, who, for a 2012 film, set a Bechstein grand piano on fire.

Details regarding the installation and Grimaud’s performances are available at the Armory’s website.

Photo: Douglas Gordon and Helene Grimaud making plans at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo courtesy Helene Grimaud.

​Click on Classical: James Galway celebrates his 75th, tubas get festive, and the St. Olaf Christmas Festival shines on

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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.

Today is the 75th birthday of the most famous non-fictional flutist who’s ever lived: Sir James Galway. He’s marking the occasion with a massive new box set of his solo recordings: 71 CDs, complete with original album art. I wrote about Galway’s unique career spanning classical and popular music. All week, Sir James will be spotlighted in our Morning Glories.

Yesterday at St. Paul’s Central Presbyterian Church, a troupe of tubists played one of the TubaChristmas concerts that take place each year at venues across the country. Christopher Vondracek, whose father has played in greater Minnesota tuba-fests for many years, writes about the special pleasures of this bass-heavy seasonal celebration.

Also this past weekend, hundreds of student musicians participated in St. Olaf’s annual Christmas Festival. Alison Young talked with two of the participants about what makes the festival special​, and I attended the festival for the first time; watch our site tomorrow for my post about the experience.

Click on Classical this weekend: Choirs aplenty and a Grammy nomination

Members of Giving Voice, a choir comprised of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers, rehearse for a concert Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014 at MacPhail Center for the Arts in Minneapolis. (Jennifer Simonson / MPR News)

It’s an exciting weekend in music, and we’ve got stories to go with it. Here are three stories you won’t want to miss:

The healing power of choral music

On Saturday at Antonello Hall at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, the Giving Voice Chorus will perform two shows — at 4 p.m. and at 6 p.m.

Giving Voice Chorus is composed of patients living with Alzheimer’s disease, and being in the choir helps them connect with loved ones and with one another through the power of music. MPR News Cathy Wurzer and Phil Picardi collaborated on this wonderful story about the chorus. It really shines light on music’s abilities to transform, even if for a little while.

Stephen Paulus nominated for a Grammy Award

Back in October, we lost one of Minnesota’s most prolific and talented composers, Stephen Paulus, at the age of 65. Today it was announced that Paulus has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Contemporary Classical Composition for his work, Concerto For Two Trumpets & Band, recorded by Eric Berlin, Richard Kelley, James Patrick Miller and the UMASS Wind Ensemble for their Fantastique album on MSR Classics.

St. Olaf Christmas Festival impressions

On Sunday at 3 p.m., Classical MPR will air the live broadcast of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival from Northfield, Minn. My colleague Alison Young recently interviewed a current St. Olaf student and an alumna about their experiences performing in the festival. Both describe their passion and fondness for the festival and its music. It really is an experience that lasts a lifetime.

Happy weekend!