All posts by Alison Young

Please turn off phones in the concert hall; here's why

Scene from Class Notes video, “What to do at a Concert” (Classical MPR)

Wednesday’s Class Notes video is all about how to behave at a concert. It brought to mind a number of examples of well-documented bad behavior in the concert hall, all of it tied to telephones.

First, this is really good! It’s a story shared by Performance Today on its Facebook page, describing the time NY Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert stopped the orchestra, turned around and spoke to a person in the front row whose ringtone kept interrupting Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

Artistic Partner of the SPCO Christian Zacharias stopped in the middle of his Haydn concerto when a phone started ringing at the Gothenburg Concert Hall in 2013. A live concert is “the rare moment where our minds can focus on one thing,” Zacharias says.

In this case, a Nokia ring tone at a concert in Slovakia inspires a little improvisation:

Even buskers get annoyed with the phones:

The funniest of all was captured in an article in The Mirror (London) in December 2001:

Conductor Jac van Steen tried to drown out the unmistakable sound and carry on with Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No.4.

But the mobile not only kept ringing — it seemed to get louder.

Finally, frustrated van Steen threw down his baton, turned to the audience and shouted: “If that is my wife, tell her I’m not here.” The phone’s embarrassed owner switched off the device without revealing his/herself to the crowd at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

Van Steen turned back to the Halle Orchestra and resumed his performance.

This is what every one of us in an audience wishes would happen when someone snaps a picture despite being told, “Please, no photography.” It’s over the top but absolutely hysterical … and must have been humiliating for the poor audience member. But Patti Lupone doesn’t put up with any monkey business.

Sorry, Lucy: Beethoven IS on bubblegum cards

Lucy Van Pelt character profile, from ‘Peanuts’ official YouTube channel.

Cartoonist Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts characters Lucy and Schroeder have a famous exchange in which Lucy dismisses Beethoven’s greatness given his absence from bubblegum cards.

We included this well-known exchange in a promo we aired before last week’s Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra broadcast. In the comic strip, which we won’t republish here but you could probably find on the official Peanuts site, Lucy and Schroeder’s conversation goes like this:

LUCY: Everyone talks about how great Beethoven was … Beethoven wasn’t so great!

SCHROEDER: What do you mean, Beethoven wasn’t so great?

LUCY: He never got his picture on bubblegum cards, did he? … How can you say someone is great who’s never had his picture on bubblegum cards?

Turns out Lucy had it wrong.

I found out when listener Doug Palmer of St. Paul, Minn., sent me this email:


I’ve been intrigued this week by your clever announcement of this weekend’s SPCO Beethoven concert, featuring Lucy Van Pelt’s declaration that Beethoven never appeared on a trading card. I immediately thought that Beethoven must surely have been included among the 1952 Topps “Look ‘N See” series of famous historical and cultural figures that I avidly collected when I was Lucy’s age.

But when I googled the old Look ‘N See trading card series, I was amazed to find Beethoven absent! The Topps Company only got around to releasing a Beethoven trading card in 2009:

Beethoven on a Topps trading card

I made some fascinating discoveries of Beethoven’s appearance in other series, which I’m sharing with you:

Beethoven did indeed appear on a 1927 series of trading cards that accompanied an elixir distributed by the Liebig Meat Extract Company of Belgium:

Beethoven Meat Extract cards

I found that the Rochester NY-based Amenda Quartet distributes Beethoven trading cards at its concerts (too bad it doesn’t picture them on its site).

For $10 you may obtain three trading card-sized fine art photo rag prints of this portrait of “Ludpig” from When Guinea Pigs Fly.
[Editor’s Note: this item appears to be sold out.]


‘Ludpig’ by Lesley DeSantis of WhenGuineaPigsFly on Etsy.

Hmm … I’m intrigued by the Amenda Quartet’s practice of handing out Beethoven cards at its concerts. Maybe Classical MPR can do that at next year’s State Fair? I guess we’ll see!

My unconventional holiday memory

Mom insisted every year that we make one of those holiday photo-cards, and she lined up all five of us one Christmas during our most awkward adolescence. We were on the porch in direct sun on one of the most bitter Chicago Decembers I’d felt (up to that point). We looked squinty, uncomfortable — and, sadly — not fresh-faced. Her moment of genius was to add Molly our stunningly perfect Golden Retriever. Maybe our friends’ and family’s eyes would alight on her! Didn’t happen. She kept looking away trying to escape.

Alison Young and her siblings pose for their family’s holiday card photo.

Even as we complained about how awful we looked, Mom went ahead and made her photo selection for the card, telling us her choice was the only one of “the roll” that didn’t look as though we were charity cases.

Thirty some years later, my brothers and I laugh and cry and hug when we see each other, recalling that day and also that it was to be the last Christmas we’d all be together.

We’re all still here, but life has taken us all over the place — and even if we had one “ugly” Christmas, we managed to survive and grow up to be pretty nice people.

Last night, Bill Morelock shared an unconventional holiday story from his childhood. You can learn more about that here.

A Benjamin Britten puzzle

brittenforweb.jpgBenjamin Britten (London Records)

You may recall how, on Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday, George Barany and Noam Elkies put together a fun (and challenging!) crossword puzzle centered on the great Italian composer.

Now Barany and Elkies have done it again, this time for the man whose centenary we mark today: Benjamin Britten.

Barany and Elkies have called their puzzle “Coin of the Musical Realm”, and you can find it by following this link. Feel free to let me know how you did on the puzzle by leaving a comment below.

Good luck and have fun!

hug a tree, save a guitar

Musicwood production still© 2013 Helpman Productions.

“When you cut down a tree and make it into a thousand different guitars all that means is that tree is singing in a thousand different voices.”

So begins the film Musicwood, a documentary that tells the story of one brilliant move by the often-reviled environmentalist organization Greenpeace to pit capitalist against capitalist in the fight to save the ancient spruce trees of the Tongass National Forest.

And what is my interest in this film?

Instruments. Specifically the acoustic guitar which is made of threatened and endangered woods. The lovely face of a guitar is made of spruce, a tree that grows is abundance in Alaska. But the indigenous corporation Sealaska control a huge swath of the forest and feel it’s their right — and some say their responsibility — to harvest the forest.

musicwood3web.jpg© 2013 Helpman Productions.

But their clear-cutting methods are at such a fast pace, some say only stumps and dirt will remain of this pristine wilderness in 10 years.

Mostly the wood is sent to Asia, with just a small percentage going to build musical instruments. And this is the group targeted.

Three of the world’s most renowned guitar makers — Gibson, Taylor and Martin, all competitors in the world of business — were convinced to come together in a coalition they named Musicwood to work as advocates for changing the process of clear cutting the forest, and hopefully to save the very product they need to survive.

“There are beautiful trees up there that you could kneel down and say a prayer underneath and probably shed a tear doing it. But these guitars are made out of that. There has to be a win-win,” says one maker as he tramps through the forest full of wonder and amazement dressed head-to-toe in rain gear.

It’s a film of stunning beauty — both musically and visually — and, for me, stunning sorrow since to this day, no agreements have been officially reached and only questions are left.

The film will be released in New York City and on iTunes/DVD on Friday, Nov. 1.

View the trailer:

The latest in a busy flute player's life


I’m jealous. I admit it.

She makes music, teaches young flutists and gives lectures on how to deal with stage fright to Fortune 500 companies while all the time never having one strand of her beautiful blond locks out of place.

Meet Mcknight Fellow and flautist extraordinaire Linda Chatterton.

And just this past year Linda teamed up with an old friend ­Ensemble

61 cellist Joel Salvo ­and a new one ­ fresh-to-the-cities harpist and

composer Rachel Brandwein – to create the Matisse Trio which will soon

embark on a nine-state concert tour.

You can hear them in a warm-up concert Friday, October 25 at 8:00 at

the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Minneapolis.

Listen on-line to a chat and performance from a few years back just as

Linda released her fifth CD.

Local Boy Makes Good

Composer Aaron Holloway-Nahun

Aaron Holloway-Nahun (submitted photo)

Composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum is a graduate of Edina High School in Edina, Minn., and has made it to the big time. But according to his neighbor (and singer in the Minnesota Chorale) Judi Harvey, Aaron is still Minnesota Nice.

Aaron lives in England now and is working with the BBC Symphony and London Sinfonietta. His music is colorful, full of wit and draws us right into its sound world. The folks over at the Copland House know this and awarded Aaron with a coveted, all-expenses-paid residency at the House in New York.

I recently caught up with Aaron for a little cross-Atlantic Q&A.

ALISON YOUNG: You say that you didn’t actually begin composing until you were 17. What was your musical involvement before then?

AARON HOLLOWAY-NAHUM: As a child, I was primarily involved in music as a singer (I also studied piano, but took singing more seriously). I sang in a number of state, regional and national honors choirs. I sang in the choirs throughout my time at Valley View Middle School, and at Edina High School, I was in the Concert Choir and Chamber Singers. I studied voice and piano privately throughout these years as well.

Was there anything specific that you did/learned/were exposed to in Edina that moved you to the path you’re on now?

The concert choir puts on a concert each spring term called “Current Jam,” and I put together a large, all-male, a cappella group in my Junior year. This required some arranging/composition work, and so I went to my choral director (Dr. David Henderson) and asked him if he had any advice on where I could learn some of this. I think he had a lot more in mind for me because — instead of just giving me a book, or pointing out I could perfectly well write for the voice having sung for 10 years or so — he sent me to the director of bands at Edina High School. The band director subsequently gave me a copy of Walter Piston’s Orchestration textbook. I’ll never forget opening it up and finding all this information about all the instruments. It had never even occurred to me that I could write for the violin without being able to play it myself. I immediately started writing music. A few months later I was accepted as a composition student on the Northwestern University Summer Music Program, and two years later I would enter Northwestern as a joint composition/vocal major. (I quickly dropped the voice major in favor of conducting studies!)

What drew you to study and work in London?

I had the incredible good fortune to study, at Northwestern, with Augusta Read Thomas. She had studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and through our conversations about European music and London in general I knew — from about the end of my sophomore year, I think — that I wanted to spend at least some time studying in London.

Tell me about SoundHub and maybe one especially cool experience you’ve had in this program.

LSO Soundhub is a recent program, established by the London Symphony Orchestra to try and create a community of composers who have a relationship with the orchestra. Soundhub events range from concerts of works by member composers, to workshops with LSO players, to interviews with composers such as John Adams and practical workshops on recording/publishing/etc.

I was a member of the pilot scheme and am now a member of the second and third year of Soundhub. There have been a number of incredible experiences; one of the everyday experiences it’s easy to forget is that the orchestra invites you into its rehearsals. This morning I heard the LSO rehearse Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony, which is an astounding piece. To hear orchestral music rehearsed and performed live on a regular basis is too rare for composers today and a real privilege.

To pick one of my own experiences, though, I’d say working with LSO Players Lorenzo Iosco (Bass Clarinet) and David Worswick (1st violins) to create a work for amplified bass clarinet and amplified violin in the gorgeous LSO St. Luke’s. The work was really very collaborative. I had the chance to write blog posts about the process of writing the work (here, here and here) and the final work has ended up on the LSO YouTube Channel. It’s every composer’s dream to work with such incredible musicians, and to have such a wide platform for that work to be heard is really very exciting and humbling.

What does your work as a recording engineer bring to your work as composer?

It was actually my compositional work (an interest in live amplification, such as in the piece above) that led me into live sound and audio recording. There is certainly a feedback loop, though. When you’re working as a recording engineer, you need to think about sound in a very particular way. For example, you have to use all sorts of techniques, tricks and subtle adjustments to make a recording sound anything like the experience of seeing a piece live (this is why, for example, an orchestra cannot be suitably recorded by just sticking two microphones where the audience would sit). So as you’re working toward this you have to have a very clear picture of what you want this orchestra, or this solo instrument, or this band (or whatever it is) to sound like.

Then you get incredibly precise about the three aspects of the sound that most interest me as a composer: attack, sustain and decay. What does the front end of the sound sound like? You might be forced to make large or small adjustments as to microphone placement to account for this. Is everything blending together the way you want it to? Do the instruments interfere with or help each other musically? And in terms of decay — what is the tail of the sound like? What kind of a space am I hearing this in?

This kind of precision is very dear to the way I compose. I work tremendously hard to think about the articulation and life of every note that I write. (Many composers think I write far too much information in my scores but I’m always receiving positive feedback on this exact point from musicians themselves). It also teaches you that — unlike a recording — you simply can’t control every element of a live performance. Someone seated at the back of the hall is simply going to have a different experience to someone at the very front of it. So what is their experience and what can I do, as a composer, to communicate as much as I can to both of them?

It’s all this sort of stuff!

What does it mean to you to be an “emerging” composer? What does it mean today to be a classical composer?

To be honest with you, this is kind of a running joke among people in the industry. These labels are very difficult things to get correct, and it’s not entirely clear how (or when) a composer goes from being “emerging” to “emerged” or whatever it is you might want to call it. What I can tell you is that most emerging composers have reached a really high level of musicianship and technical ability, but probably aren’t yet making a full-time career out of composition. Then again, being a classical composer today almost universally entails things such as teaching of some kind, and often other supplementary work such as my working as a recording engineer and as artistic director of The Riot Ensemble.

Tell me about your current projects.

I’ve had a really fantastic time this past year working with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a project called “Embedded” run through a fantastic British organization called Sound and Music. The premiere of my new orchestral piece, The Deeper Breath to Follow, will take place on Thursday, Nov. 14. (Tickets are free if you’re in London!)

I’m also currently working with the London Sinfonietta on a December premiere in its New Music Show, am an LSO Soundhub member (for which I’m writing a new work for June) and am currently writing a Clarinet Quintet for Timothy Orpen.

I’m also continuing on in 2014 as Artistic Director of The Riot Ensemble. We’ll be announcing our 2014 season soon, which already includes commissions from all over the world and a number of really exciting projects.

What do you hope to accomplish at the Copland House? What are you looking forward to the most?

I am really looking forward to having day after day of uninterrupted time to compose. As you can see from everything I’ve said, composition really just makes up a part of what my day-to-day life looks like. I’m always being pulled away from my office table, which is where I work. At Copland House, all the rest of that will quiet down for a while and I will be able to pick up the pen in the morning without any need to put it down until I’m ready.

If all the stars aligned, what would your life look like?

I feel totally blessed just to be living the life I am living right now! Of course I would — over time — like to have even more time to dedicate to composition, but the truth is that I would never want to totally give up my other work. I think I’d really love to see The Riot Ensemble grow into an international new music organization that champions the works of emerging composers from all over the world, and my own dream is to be able to write orchestral music throughout my life. I just love orchestras so much!

Do you have videos or samples of your music that we can post online?

Yes, my website is probably the best place!

Here is a recent, short animation of a violin piece I wrote (animation by 12foot6):

Here is a video of me conducting The Riot Ensemble in the world premiere of my work ‘Plainer Sailing’ (text by Sasha Dugdale) in an London Symphony Orchestra Discovery Concert:

Here is an ‘introductory video to me’ from my website:

Here is a youtube video of my wife playing one of my Hugo Wolf song transcriptions:

A Verdi Puzzle

A Verdi puzzle

Let’s just start this blog by stating I am not a puzzle gal.

But on this 200th birthday of one of the greatest opera composers of all, Giuseppe Verdi, I couldn’t resist sharpening my pencil and giving this commemorative Verdi puzzle by George Barany and Friends a try — and don’t for a second think I’d use a pen!

SUPER clever, like a three-letter word for a Diva’s defining feature or the act that brought the house down where other answers premiered — and maybe the only one I might consider answering in pen for 27-across: His troubles started with Weird Sisters and continued when his Lady needed a damn spot remover.

Happy Birthday, “Joe Green,” and have at it!

(… and let me know how you did by leaving a comment below. Have fun!)

Are music lessons for everybody? Should they be?

stylised image from SymphonyCast Facebook page

This recent piece in the New Republic generated a lot of conversation on our SymphonyCast Facebook page. I wanted to be sure you were invited to participate in the conversation.

Clearly, music education is important to me both personally and professionally. In fact, one of the most important pieces of our mission at Classical MPR is music education on all levels, from helping budding musicians take their very first baby steps with their own instrument in our Play it Forward program, to showcasing the most talented around with Minnesota Varsity, to the continuing-education aspect of Emily Reese’s Learning to Listen.

But that doesn’t address the gist of Mark Oppenheimer’s article and why it gets so deeply under my skin. And I guess what is most upsetting is his smug, out-of-hand dismissal of music lessons for the average, i.e. for those not expected to become professionals. I did have a momentary reflective moment asking myself if we in the music business simply have an ulterior motive of training young musicians so we’ll have a future audience.

a sample of Facebook comments

But quickly, I thought that conclusion is not only bleak, but misses the entire point of what makes music — and music making in particular — so life-changing and life-enhancing. Simply look at the incredible success of a program like Venezuela’s El Sistema, which uses the very act of becoming proficient in music to add hope to a child’s life, which may be one of poverty, not just financially but in spirit. These children don’t all go on to be Gustavo Dudamel; most of them simply become better citizens, but their lives are forever changed by the discipline, the self-reliance and teamwork required to become a musician, not to mention the whole world opened to their ears of the greatest music ever written.

That’s my two cents, and I certainly welcome yours. And if you’re finished studying an instrument for the time being and want to donate yours to a young eager musician, you know who to call!

The Queen of Tonga – larger-than-life or just kinda chubby?

queen of tonga.jpgShe was larger than life – both figuratively and in reality – one paper said she was 6’4″ and 280 pounds; another pegged her at just shy of six feet and a few stone less. But just looking at the picture of the Queen of Tonga next to Britain’s newly crowned Queen Elizabeth and you get the picture.

The papers agree on one thing: when the two met, Queen Salote wore a skirt made of pounded bark and a coconut-husk belt – and her manner and warm grace won everyone’s hearts, including England’s monarch.

This morning, I’ll finish our Dominick Argento birthday week with his humorous Haydn-esque “Homage to the Queen of Tonga” who was considered back in 1953 to be the most popular of ALL the coronation guests.