All posts by skjellberg

A Night in Havana!

I had the great privilege this past weekend to attend one of the premiere US concerts of the Cuban choir, Schola Cantorum Coralina, brought to us through the initiation of our very own Philip Brunelle and VocalEssence.

I didn’t quite know what to expect going into it. A few weeks ago I thought in my naïve, snobby Midwest “our choirs are the best” attitude, “Okay. A Cuban choir? This will be nice. Some mambo and Afro-Cuban percussion with added singing. Cute. Fun.”

…No. It was so much more than that. I was COMPLETELY blown away. Of course there was rhythm, but it was a side note. It was as if they said, “Well, yeah. We’re Cuban. Get over it. Now check this out!” I was taken by the tightness of their blend and expressive movement, the complexity of the repertoire, a genre seemingly lost to our American choral ears (Cuban choral music that is), and their unwavering communication. Their conductor (Alina Orraca) had enormous control of this choir who had the musical spectrum and control likened to a 1966 Pontiac GTO – beautiful, tender, muscular, fast, and sassy.

My mind has been consumed ever since, LITERALLY unable to stop thinking or talking about their performance!

A beautiful combination of high-caliber musical performance and commitment to youth education, instilling a passion for choral music in the Cuban community.

If you missed it, I am sorry. BUT, you can still check them out online. Here are some videos from their winning performance at the 2007 European Grand Prix for Choral Singing.

Ryan Cayabyab (Philippines): Sanctus and Angus Dei

Guido López Gavilán (Cuba): La Aporrumbeosis

Felix Mendelssohn: Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen

The State Fair Singers!

It is understood that Minnesota holds a very strong grip on the world of choral music, both nationally and internationally. With our world-renown professional and collegiate choirs, fabulous public school programs, and choirs with a message we have carved our name in choral history. We live in a special place, and it is our depth that is so remarkable.

Here at Classical MPR we have made an official commitment to the choral community in Minnesota. We started by creating an on-line choral stream with hours and hours of non-stop choral music from around the world. We will bring to the Twin Cities the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the King’s College Choir (Cambridge), and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir with a commission by Edie Hill. In the future we will continue to nurture that relationship by creating collaborative programming and content.

This summer at the State Fair Classical MPR thought, given our choral initiative, that it would be appropriate to incorporate several vocal acts, including VocalEssence, the Minnesota Boychoir, and members of the Minnesota Opera. But something was missing…so when I was approached by Brian Newhouse and Daniel Gilliam at MPR to discuss other ensembles to incorporate, I responded immediately with the idea of a young-adult chamber choir. They asked, “Does anything like that exist?” Knowing of nothing I said, “No, but I will create it.”

And so here we are, The State Fair Singers with me, Sam Kjellberg, the aspiring conductor. We will sing a short program of music by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and a short hymn by the great Thomas Tallis. It’s a simple concept – young-adults between the ages of 22 and 27 singing together, all coming from fabulous collegiate choral programs – Concordia (Moorhead), Luther, Saint Olaf, the University of Minnesota, and Yale. This project has been the seed to something we hope to continue through the next several years, or until we’re too old to be considered “young-adults.” (…but “youth” is a mindset, right?…)

The name seems a little narrow and constraining, and in some ways it is, but even with the name attached, this group has hopes of being a symbolic gesture for the future of choral music and classical music in general. It is my opinion that Classical Music must focus on keeping its youthful vigor and innovation alive and well. I hope that ensembles with this sort of youthful energy, determination, and initiative will continue to be heralded for years to come!

Come at check us out at the State Fair!!!

August 27-29th, 2-3pm

September 3, 2-3pm

All at the Minnesota Public Radio booth on the corner of Judson and Nelson!

Reawakening the Sacred: A Jeremy Denk Book Review

Jeremy Denk, the compelling and persuasive artist, American concert pianist, avid chamber musician, exploratory in his choice of repertoire has now moved from the ivory keyboard of his Steinway to his dimly lit laptop to become a writer for none other than the New York Times’ book reviews.


Last Thursday (April 12th, 2012), Denk was published in the New York Times Book Review, an honor not stopping at simple publication. His review boasts the largest thumbnail picture on the page — the featured article!

The book: The Great Animal Orchestra written by Bernie Krause, a self-proclaimed child prodigy, folk musician, author and soundscape recordist in a newly coined term called biophony.

Krause’s book comes years after his short stint with folk ensemble The Weavers, some exploration into electronic music, creating the synthesizer group Beaver & Krause (which you can hear with bands such as The Monkeys, The Byrds, The Doors and Stevie Wonder) and then years spent in the Muir Woods recording the sounds of nature.

Muir woods.jpg

As Denk puts it, the book “resembles a howl more than an argument” as Krause exposes our abandonment and exile of the world’s sound. Krause uses scientific data, his own observation, and some hearsay in order to criticize our entire human culture as wall-building and ignorant of the beautiful array of sound in nature that is as much creative as it is practical.

This prominent review is no doubt a great honor for Jeremy Denk. But isn’t this a story Westerners have been hearing about for quite some time — disillusionment and numbness to our world. As we continue down the overstated economic downturn, as education continues to be left to simmer on the back-burner, as our political system becomes unconscionably polarized (and no less corrupt), and as our religious and spiritual selves become bankrupt we are left with no choice but to turn toward nature, to seek refuge for some morsel of the sacred.

It is not as though our experience with nature is in anyway unique, quite the opposite. Rather, it seems a bit uncanny because of its nostalgia and necessity, a sort of overcompensation.

I can remember that during college the only refuge I had from the abundance of assigned papers, endless nights cut by the wedge of a coffee-induced stare, countless performances and the occasional breakdown was the soundscape piece by Steve Reich called “Music for 18 Musicians.” This hour-long, harmonically swirling pulse would drive me into a trance. Often I would find myself with arms wide, leaning back, head held erect as I mentally wandered the mountain ranges of Montana (the place where I spent my summers), forgetting that I was sitting in a crowded computer lab lit by florescent bulbs.

Whether your experience with societal life is a positive or negative one, Jeremy Denk’s review sheds light on the offerings of Bernie Krause’s book The Great Animal Orchestra, a reawakening to the harmony and melody of nature.

After you peruse the review and maybe even the book, take time to notice the sounds of the world and think of your own refuge…

On a side note (and shamelessly promoting the Twin Cities music scene)… Jeremy Denk will be playing two separate concert series here in Saint Paul this weekend. The first, a series featuring works by Charles Ives, Mauricio Kagel and György Ligeti is showing from April 19-21. The second, featuring works by Edward Elgar, Hugo Wolf, Sergei Prokofiev, Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák showing from April 20-22. Get your tickets at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s website.

Simply Stupendous!

Since November of 1969 the children’s program Sesame Street has brought the world educational television that uses the addictive powers of television to promote good — to be cliché — while preparing and educating children about school, morals and social practice.

A vast number of guests have graced the show’s set, a list whose Wikipedia article requires its own alphabetical listing page. These visits typically will consist of some particular moral, grammatical, biological or social concept — I remember seeing Robin Williams explain what it means to be alive as he filled his own shoe with a banana, peanuts, confetti, water and dog food; in the end, the conclusion was that the shoe was not alive!

Recently — February 6, 2011 to be exact — world-renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel paid a visit to Sesame Street to help Elmo explain the word “Stupendous,” which is taught to be something “very, very great and amazing!” Something Dudamel is most certainly aware of.


In this segment, Dudamel conducts three small chamber groups: a sheep playing a violin, an octopus playing percussion (pretty impressive section created by all its limbs), and finally a penguin choir singing the “Ode to Joy” theme from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a fairly significant piece to Dudamel if you keep up with his El Sistema efforts and his film “Let the Children Play.”

If you look closely, I believe Dudamel is mouthing the words:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken

Tochter aus Elysium,

Wir betreten feuertrunken,

Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!

The Liberating Invitation from the Artworld

“With its stylization and its larger-than-life emotions, opera has never been about unbroken narrative or cinematic realism. It is about going in and out of the drama, in and out of realism.”

(Zachary Woolfe, New York Observer; October 5, 2011)

To bridge the gap, to break through the translucent historical and pedestal’d barrier between the stage and the commonplace, is seen as something of a taboo in the classical world. As an artistic audience, we don’t know how to handle incorporation and conversation with the stage world, the world of moral fragility, the world of the dilemma that pries us from any comfortable choice, a world perfect in its scenarios. We like to sit cozy, knowing that these experiences are at a distance, thinking that the stage world couldn’t possibly portray our own daily experience and struggle with the world, meaning and purpose… But it does.

By all of this I simply mean the act of breaking character on stage, a small aside or reaction that emerges from within the production and addresses the outside world. Throughout history there has been disdain circling this issue.


Recently, Metropolitan operatic star René Pape, while acting the role of Méphistophélès (the Devil) in Charles Gounod’s Faust, broke character by parting with the French language and addressed the audience with an aside in English.

Let me paint the picture: It is Act 4, a scene in Marguerite’s garden. She has just sung the famous “Jewel Song” after having received a box covered in jewels, which happened to have been from Faust through Méphistophélès, who is helping Faust gain the love of Marguerite. After Marguerite’s aria Faust and Méphistophélès reenter the stage and begin their recitative. Amid one of his French sighs Méphistophélès (played by René Pape) turns to the audience and says, in English, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” The laughter that followed seemed strained with an underlying current of judgment.

You can see how this would outrage the public, and it did. The concern is duly noted and understandable; classical art should not be tampered with or tarnished. However, allow me to play the part of Méphistophélès’s attorney for a moment (Devil’s advocate, if I may).

The living aesthetician, Arthur C. Danto, rocked the art world in 1981 with the publication of his book “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art.” The mission, as the subtitle suggests, was to create a philosophy of art, which he thought, up to that point, had been slightly ambiguous and undefined. (Claim to fame: That the history of art is finished. A disturbing statement likened to Nietzsche’s “God is dead. And we have killed him”.)


His book was a reaction to the history of art, which in the decades previous to its publication brought what some might consider strange artistic developments and freedoms. He philosophically addresses these controversial pieces of art, namely Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal with “R. Mutt 1917” written on it), Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” (a stack of boxes with the logo of the Brillo soap pad brand), among other Avant Garde works.


The pinnacle example is a short, passionate dialogue regarding the statue of a cat that was located in a rotunda on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. For a long time this statue sat there, unmoved, sitting near a staircase. He passed this everyday with little notice. However, one day as Danto walked by he noticed that the statue had been freshly chained to the stair case railing. This provided him a door into the question of where the artworld line is drawn and the ambiguity of the border between art and commonplace.

For Danto, the chained cat could have meant one of two things: an attempt to counteract possible burglaries of the statue, or an attempt by the artist to gift some morsel of artworld status into and onto the commonplace. He chose the latter.

Like the chain, the broken character is an invitation to incorporate the audience in the artistic experience, as a way for the actor to connect their own character to the audience as if to say, “Yes, I am here with you. Let us see the world together. Isn’t this fascinating?”

Of course, it is easy to say that when an actor breaks character they are breaking the tradition and sanctity of that particular artwork. However, under the Dantonian lens it seems that the breaking of one’s character truly is an invitation for involvement, an acceptance between the audience and the artist, a most liberating and inclusive characteristic of art.

Art speaks on behalf of culture, it follows our desires and passions, opening doors, and with such an invitation we as an audience are transcendent up and into the artworld, living, breathing and drinking every morally fragile theme.

Brahms: Newly Performed, From the Past

tumblr_lmr2awKVcS1qeu6ilo1_500.jpgThink back to your time in high school, to middle school, or even grade school. Now accompany that thought with a comparing mind.

When you reach these moments in your past take out the stacks of old papers, assignments and arts and crafts projects and look at them. How do you feel about these now that all this time has past? Did you know anything then that you don’t know now? Or did you NOT know anything that you DO know now?

Well, a young Johannes Brahms did something quite similar to this. Brahms began composing as early as age 11, writing what we can guess were short piano works. Upon revisiting these pieces later in his life and deciding they weren’t worth saving — perhaps even a little embarrassed by his boyish compositional techniques — Brahms threw out most of these works.

However, as Brahms turned 20 he gradually started to save his boyish musical compositions after receiving notable recognition for his performing and compositions while on a concert tour with violinist Eduard Reményi where Franz Liszt read through one of his works. Later that year meeting Robert Schumann, who was impressed by his work, Brahms created a lifelong friendship with the musical duo, Robert and Clara.

Recently, while leafing though old Brahms manuscripts in the United States, British conductor and scholar Christopher Hogwood discovered a short unpublished piano work by the 20-year-old Brahms. The piece is titled Albumblatt, meaning “Album Leaf”.

BBC Radio 3 has dibs on the world premiere performance, which will be broadcast on the Tom Service show sometime next month. Pianist Andras Schiff has been asked to take on such an honor while Hogwood was asked to discuss his finding.

This is significant for the obvious reason that we are talking about Johannes Brahms here, a composer with a widely performed catalogue list of grueling length! His name has been engrained in our minds as one of the foremost composers of the Western world.

This new piano piece is short, lasting only a mere two minutes in length, but will soon be a prized work amongst concert pianists.

Perhaps Brahms never intended this work to be seen, performed or published. Regardless, let us welcome this new work into the world, a work written by Brahms almost 160 years ago!

"Please, turn off all electronic devices!"

electronic punishment.jpg

We have all experienced it before: the clanging cell phone piercing its way between the middle of a concert, followed by the whispering shuffle as everyone is trying to locate the perpetrator. It seems so interesting that these interruptions still occur considering the massive amounts of “Please, turn off all electronic devices” that surround the concert-goer’s experience.

Classical music and its musicians have not been well-prepared for this. We don’t have ancient treatises’ for conductors and musicians that explain a counteraction to the rude disturbance, our editions can’t seem to catch up to the trends. The electronic device is a new demon lurking at the concert halls and has been dealt with in a multitude of ways.

Well, one such disturbance happened in outrageous form last night during a New York Philharmonic concert at Avery Fischer Hall. This time it was not lightly brushed aside but was confronted in full-force by Maestro Alan Gilbert.

The orchestra was playing Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony, an extremely important piece, not only for Mahler himself, but for the orchestra because of their close relationship with Mahler during the last years of his life.

Imagine this… Fourth movement. About 85 minutes into a 90 minute work. Orchestra at a pianissimo. Quieting down from a climax into serenity; a sighing breath from the Mahler storm. All are transcendent into what can only be described as the “Ecstasy of Mahler.” Then, about 15 measures until the final page turn… CUE: Marimba cell-phone ringtone

Mahler did not write for marimba. In fact, the marimba hadn’t even made its way into any radar of any classical composer at the time. This confused Gilbert and when it did not cease, it upset him.

Gilbert stopped the orchestra, turned to the man, who happened to be in the front row and had this conversation:

“Are you finished?”

No Response.

“Fine, we’ll wait.”

Audience chimes in: “Thousand dollar fine!” “Get out!” “Kick him out!”

“Did you turn it off?”

Man nods.

“It won’t go off again?”

Man shook his head.

After a final apologetic address to the audience he turned to the orchestra and asked them to start at 118. They finished the symphony in glorious fashion!

Of course, this is only one way to counteract such a disturbance. Perhaps Alan Gilbert was a little harsh. Perhaps he was right on the money. Perhaps the man in the front row had a wife in labor, or in the hospital, or any other possible emergencies that would need immediate contact. You could say, “Well, why are you at a concert then?” But, keep in mind he had a front row seat; those seats can cost well over $120, on an easy night.

Either way, the epidemic of electronic device disturbance is becoming an issue. So, I want to ask you: “How do you think these sorts of disturbances should be dealt with?”

Please, leave a comment. Let’s get this conversation going! Maybe, with enough input, we could write that treatise that all conductors have been waiting to read.

Thank you Classical 2011! You've Been Grand!

Happy New Year!

I sat down at work today and realized the quiet. Of course, there remained an uncanny hustle and bustle throughout the city with professionals in their daily activities and duties – the city never sleeps no matter how calm the façade. Enclosing that motion was a silence that intrigued my ears and I soon realized that the silence’s fountainhead came from reflection.

And how could it have taken me so long to realize that the holidays were staring me in the face, wrapping themselves around me? The juxtaposition of deeply religious rituals and the severally secular Western celebration of a New Year (ironically, a celebration from a calendar instigated by the papal authority in the 16th century, but I digress).

So, in honor of the end of 2011 we will dedicate this post to the reflection on the classical music world of this past year.

We will circle ourselves around several themes: the wonderful tradition of summer festivals, the financial woe epidemic amongst musical organizations, the growth of virtual distribution and widespread access to performances and within we will touch on some of the Minnesota regional highlights.

Let’s celebrate the New Year by reflecting and paying homage to this last one. So, will you join me in saying, “Thank you 2011! Your classical music was grand!”

Summer Celebrations

Arguably the largest music festival to grace human history is the BBC Proms in London at the Royal Albert Hall. The cream of the crop are invited to perform in this practically two-month long festival.


This year hosted an array of creative programming including the largest symphonic work, Symphony No. 1 in D minor “The Gothic” written by Havergal Brian, several works written by transcendent French composer Olivier Messiaen, opening the festival with the rarely heard Glagolitic Mass by Leos Janacek, an entire Steve Reich concert with the composer himself performing, appearances by American ensemble Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and an obscure piece written by the grandson of Sergei Prokofiev, Gabriel Prokofiev, his Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra (DJ Switch is perhaps the only t-shirt wearing musician to grace the Royal Albert Hall stage). Overall, an extremely successful event!

In America we host a vast amount of summer festivals as well; the Tanglewood Music Festival, Aspen Music Festival and School, Marlboro Music Festival, the Grand Canyon Music Festival, Interlochen Center for the Arts and the list goes on and on…

A favorite amongst the prior list would be the Aspen Summer Festival and School. In 2011 conductor Robert Spano was named Music Director-Designate and led a fabulous summer festival where professionals and up-and-coming musicians are able to mingle and collaborate.

Marlboro Artistic Directors Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida lead a truly collaborative effort, marking this year as Marlboro’s 60th anniversary!


The Twin Cities hosts many summer celebrations as well, but the cherished Minnesota Orchestra Sommerfest is a Minnesota favorite. This past summer they performed many great works throughout classical history: Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Petrushka, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, an all Gershwin program, an all Mozart program and some very interesting guest artists; the Beatles tribute band “1964” and pop-indie band Cloud Cult.

A very successful, entertaining and meaningful summer music scene. Thank you 2011, your summer music was fabulous!

Financial Woe

Though the financial woe has been surfacing ever since the 2008 economic crash, this year seemed evermore potent and laden filled than usual.

A short recap…

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

In an already struggling and seemingly desolate economy, the once thriving automotive city of Detroit clung to their artistic hope and supported an orchestra. This was true up until October of 2010 when unsatisfied musicians went on strike, which lasted through the following year of 2011.


Striking to the brink, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was able to pull itself up from the bootstraps and come to an agreement on April 3, 2011, concerts resuming on April 9. Close call…

Philadelphia Orchestra

The Philadelphia Orchestra broke records being the very first major orchestra to file for bankruptcy. In poetic fashion the newly appointed music director-designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin offered to work a whole week without pay to symbolize not only his commitment to music but his willingness to personally assist in the financial crisis. Because the Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 they are still allowed to continue their operations, but this will certainly put a stunt in the ensemble’s future growth.

Opera Boston

The Christmas present nobody wants to hear or have… On December 23rd, 2011 Opera Boston’s board of directors issued a press release announcing that the curtains on the Opera Boston stage will be drawn for good. The city has had a history with financial hardship within the opera world going back to 1915 when Boston Opera Co. filed for bankruptcy and in 1990 with the Opera Company of Boston folding after 31 years of fine programming.

Local Impacts

Here in Minnesota our orchestras and choirs seem to be staying upright and have even, in some respects, been thriving, namely with the new Orchestra Hall construction and the proposal of a new performance space for the SPCO.

However, look into any school district’s budget and you will see that the arts are struggling more than ever.

The financial woe epidemic touches every aspect of human culture and society. Now, more than ever, in our financial dire straits we as a society need to embrace the hopeful and meaningful gifts that art can bring.

Thank you 2011 for opening our eyes and ears!

Virtually There

It’s been here for a while, the theatre streaming of the Metropolitan Opera Company, but will this great idea be IN our future scope or BE our future scope of classical music exposure?

Among the productions streamed were: Rossini’s Le Comty Ory, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, Adams’ Nixon in China, Verdi’s Il Trovatore and many others.


I have been to these productions and they are pretty neat! I saw Richard Strauss’ Capriccio and I got lost on stage. In fact, I felt as though I was missing my cues or something because all I was doing was watching instead of interacting with the performers.

Check these out in 2012! Some great productions coming up: Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Handel’s Rodelinda, Gounod’s Faust and a new production of Massanet’s Manon.

There are many locations throughout the Twin Cities that these theatre experiences are available: AMC Rosedale 14, Oakdale Cinema, Brooklyn Center 20, Eagan 16, AMC Eden Prairie 18 to just name a few. Check out Fathom Events at their website.

Thank you 2011 for continuing to bring us onstage!

Attractive Liberties

If you think about it, in some way or another sexual appeal has been a part of the classical music scene for, well probably since its beginnings. It could be as reactionary as Lisztomania to being deeply imbedded in the message of the music itself, just listen to any Wagner opera…

However, this year brought some new and interesting liberties in way of classical attire.


This past fall 24 year old pianist Yuja Wang was regarded as though she were some pop star celebrity. Basically, she wore this very short and quite tight orange dress to play a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. The proceeding conversations hardly focused on her actual playing, of which she did a most outstanding job. Rather, these conversations were side to side bantering about the morally correct thing to wear on stage at a classical performance.


The winner of a 2011 Echo award, 31 year old violinist David Garrett, who might be confused as Kurt Cobain, has pushed us to the brink of ambiguity as to what a “typical” classical musician looks and dresses like.

In this case I will allow the pictures to speak my 1,000 words.

Final Thank You!

We want to thank you classical world of 2011 for bringing joy, for bringing us sorrow, for being sexy, for being poor, for being profound, fun, engaging and for filling our ears and hearts with music that we love! Thank you 2011. But, we must bid you adieu as we welcome 2012!

Beethoven the Charismatic!

On Saturday December 17th, 2011 erstwhile SNL cast member Jimmy Fallon returns as host. He is known for his wonderful impersonations and also his self-imposed laughter.

However, Fallon was able to keep his composure this past Saturday when he added Ludwig van Beethoven to his list of impersonations!

Beethoven is seen introducing the “band” to the newly composed Variations on “Ode to Joy” orchestral suite with the familiar Beethovean smooth jazz flavor!

Quite funny for both music aficionados, music lovers and classical music laymen alike!

Celestial Altercation

As we approach the coming of our special event this Friday, December 9th, the New York Polyphony Holiday Concert at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, we will take a look at an original work that was recently commissioned for and premiered by New York Polyphony this past November.

The work is titled Missa Charles Darwin, composed by American composer Gregory Brown and was set to text edited by New York Polyphony’s bass Craig Phillips. You may think this title is counterproductive and contradictory, taking a structural paradigm of the Catholic faith and juxtaposing it with the principle text of evolutionary science. However, the piece seeks to exemplify the creativity and ingenuity of the human spirit, as well as portraying the unique position humans have within our reality.

Even though the composer claims this not to be a political statement, his purpose of exemplifying human language, human’s curiosity into reality and its multi-functional viewpoints is certainly a spiritual and poetic one.

Under this light, this work could be considered one of the most important musical works of our time — perhaps not in a purely musical sense, but as a statement of cooperation among seemingly disagreeable mediums, between spiritual understanding and an understanding based on facts.

As humans we question the world, whether regarding the creation and meaning of our existence or to simply understand and grasp the world around us. This work shows that there is beauty in both the spiritual and the scientific and each can assist the other in the collective human effort to grasp and understand reality!