Category Archives: Film

The Force is with these three young pianists

From the Top, the radio program that celebrates the stories, talents, and character of classically-trained young musicians, is embracing the enthusiasm ahead of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

True to From the Top’s format, the show found three talented youngsters — Maxine Park, Katherine Lui and Michael Karshis — dressed them up as Yoda, Princess Leia and Darth Vader, respectively, and set them to play John Williams’s music from the Star Wars films.

The video of this piano six hands performance is directed and edited by Dillon Buss.

From the Top airs Sundays at noon on Classical MPR.

And if you’d like to hear more Star Wars music, the YourClassical Movies Stream will feature John Williams’s scores all day on Friday, Dec. 18.

The Sound of Music: Film versus Fact

Promotional photo of the Trapp Family Singers from 1941.
Promotional photo of the Trapp Family Singers from 1941. (Metropolitan Music Bureau, New York. Photo by Larry Gordon.)

It’s the 50th anniversary of the release of the beloved musical film, The Sound of Music. It turns out there are significant differences between the actual story of the Trapp family and what is depicted on screen … but not enough to disrupt the Trapps’ — nor anyone else’s — enjoyment of the picture.

On March 2, 1965, 20th Century Fox released the film The Sound of Music. Starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and featuring music by Rodgers and Hammerstein (and an original score by Irwin Kostal), the film garnered multiple awards, including the 1965 Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise) and Best Music – Scoring of Music for Kostal’s adaptation.

The film remains one of the most beloved of all time, and has earned a spot in numerous lists from the American Film Institute. To this day, cinemas often screen sing-along exhibitions of the film; it clearly remains one of countless people’s “favorite things.”

But as gripping as the story is as depicted on film, it actually is quite different from the Trapp Family’s real-life experience. In an interview with Louise Hidalgo for BBC Magazine, here’s what the Trapps’ youngest son said about the film version of the family’s story:

“Everyone thinks the Sound of Music was exactly the way things happened, and of course it wasn’t because there had to be artistic licence,” says Johannes von Trapp. He is the youngest son of Georg and Maria — the decorated naval commander and singing nun turned governess of the film.

“This was the Hollywood version of the Broadway version of the German film version of the book that my mother wrote.

“It’s like the parlour game where you whisper a word in your neighbour’s ear and he whispers it and it goes around the room — by the time it comes back it’s usually changed a bit.”

Some of the changes are innocuous; for instance, the family had 10 rather than seven children. Other changes punch up the story; one example is that the Trapp family didn’t escape post-Anschluss Austria by hiking over the Alps to Switzerland. Instead, they took a train to Italy.

There was one particular change the family did not enjoy. In the film, Christopher Plummer’s character is stern and domineering at first. Although his transformation heightens the story, in reality, Georg von Trapp was genial and kind. According to a “Movie vs. Reality” article written by Joan Gearin of the U.S. National Archives, this change “distressed [the] family greatly.”

Other adaptations were welcome, and overall, the Trapps enjoyed the cinematic retelling of their story. In her article for BBC Magazine, Hidalgo relates this reaction from Maria von Trapp:

Maria later recalled, in a BBC interview, that she only learned Hollywood was making a film when she read about it in a newspaper.
“I felt very alarmed,” she said. “I didn’t know what they are going to do with us … Hollywood being Hollywood, [I thought] they will have me three times divorced and five times married or whatever. And then it turned out so nice — especially the beginning with the mountains and me coming up over the meadow.”

You can read more about the comparisons between the true story of the Trapps and the story told in The Sound of Music by reading Hildalgo’s complete article in BBC Magazine and by reading Gearin’s piece from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in its entirety.

Michael Barone on Bach, Stokowski, and ‘Fantasia’


In commemoration of Fantasia‘s 75th anniversary, I’m writing about the various segments of Disney’s animated masterpiece. When I set out to write about the opening segment, J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, I asked Pipedreams host Michael Barone if he had any thoughts on the piece—originally written for organ. Here’s what Michael shared:

“The Toccata and Fugue in D-minor is the best known and most popular of all organ pieces. From its opening fanfare-like gesture and throughout its demonstrably dramatic and dynamic course, this score has captured the general imagination with a ferocity and consistency unlike any other composition for the pipe organ. Likely because of its dark ‘minor key’ tonality and the phantasmagorical profile of its thematic exposition, it also has taken on ‘sinister overtones’ and become a nearly obligatory presence in spooky Hallowe’en concerts, the ‘theme song’ of The Phantom of the Opera.

“However, the history of this remarkable composition is complicated.  Attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach but first published only in 1833, 83 years after Bach’s death (and eventually catalogued as BWV 565 in the Bach Werk Verzeikniss…the official listing of Bach’s many compositions), the Toccata and Fugue was given its first documented and significant public performance by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, which event ignited its continued popularity. Yet no autograph score exists, and those copies from which the piece has been derived left enough detail uncertain as to cause some musicologists in recent times to question whether the work really was by Bach after all. Though we may never know with absolute certainty, the majority vote is for Bach’s authorship, a marvelous display of his well-documented youthful zeal and virtuosic technical skill.

“Bach’s style adapts well to transcription, and his popularity has been consistently enhanced by arrangements such as those of the mercurial and innovative conductor Leopold Stokowski.  Remember that Stokey’s career began on the organ bench.  But just as his imagination demanded the greater potential of the orchestral conductor’s podium, his delight in Bach required a tonal palette more expansive than what could be provided by even a large pipe organ.  His Bach orchestrations proved hugely popular with his Philadelphia Orchestra audiences which, along with his history-making experiments in stereophonic recording caught the attention of the emerging master of the animated film, Walt Disney.

“Their collaborative project, the epochal family-friendly cinematic spectacle Fantasia, a visual recasting of classical works by Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, and Mussorgsky, used as prelude Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. That piece, the film’s opening sequence, almost literally blew people’s minds back in 1940, and it has lost none of its magic through the ensuing years.  Any number of the young and young at heart had their first exposure to Bach in this context, but when they then rushed out to ‘find a recording’ of the Toccata and Fugue, discovered unexpectedly the further magic of Bach on the organ. And so it goes.”

‘Knight of Cups’: New Terrence Malick movie features a ton of classical music

Knight of Cups

On Sunday Terrence Malick’s new film Knight of Cups premiered at the 2015 Berlinale International Film FestivalThe much-anticipated feature from the revered director was met with typical fanfare, with lots of buzz about the film’s big-name stars—including Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, and Cate Blanchett—and how the film was actually shot without a completed script. (Malick himself was, as expected, absent.) Portman was quoted in a tweet by Berlinale: “I admired Terrence Malick as an artist. Now I got to know him as a human and that made me admire him even more.”

Malick is well-known for his frequent use of classical music, and his new movie has an enormous amount of music in it. In addition to music by Vaughan Williams, Grieg, Beethoven, Debussy, Pärt, and other composers, the film includes an original score that continues Malick’s collaborative relationship with composer Hanan Townshend—a relationship that now spans at least three films. The movie also includes music by indie rock bands like Explosions in the Sky and Thee Oh Sees. A complete list of music in the film appears at The Playlist.

Knight of Cups, which stars Bale as a discontented Hollywood screenwriter, has received wildly varying reviews: the London Times says it’s Malick “at the top of his game,” while the BBC says it’s the worst film ever by the director known for Badlands (1973), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The Tree of Life (2011). It’s expected to be released in the U.S. this year, though no date has yet been announced.

The complete Chico Marx piano collection

The Marx Brothers, photographed in 1931; top to bottom: Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo. (Ralph F. Stitt / U.S. Library of Congress)

There was a time when piano playing was fun. I stumbled across this online the other day and it was the most entertaining thing I’ve seen in a long time. I wonder if Lang Lang and Murray Perahia have mastered the pistol trick?

Video fun with overdubbing

Marni Nixon is an American soprano and a highly successful overdub singer for film actresses.

In this week’s Flicks in Five, Lynne Warfel describes the use of overdubs in films. Overdubbing doesn’t necessarily mean an actor can’t sing; for example, as Lynne points out, Audrey Hepburn was a fine singer, but overdubs were used in My Fair Lady simply because it would have taken too much time (and time equals money) to transpose the film’s entire score to Hepburn’s mezzo-soprano range.

Sometimes actors will lip-sync to a backing track recorded in a studio, often because the desired audio quality can’t be achieved on a sound stage (or because an army of studio musicians aren’t immediately to hand on a TV set — Glee, I’m looking at you).

But overdubs can also be a source of good fun. For example, here’s one person’s re-imagining of Phantom of the Opera if it were overdubbed by Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog:

And this one is more of a lip-sync, but here’s Mr. Bean giving his performance of the soprano aria “O mio babbino caro” from the opera Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini:

Finally, this video combines Muppets and actual operatic singing, as Sesame Street‘s Murray Monster and Ovejita travel to Lincoln Center to join Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who — using her real voice — performs Rosina’s aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. There’s a bit of informative intro and a couple vocal exercises singers will recognize, but the music starts right around the two-minute mark.

'Butterfly' flutist makes finals in flute competition

Yukie Ota, the flutist who earned worldwide attention and widespread admiration for her poise in a performance at the 2014 Carl Nielsen Flute Competition in Copenhagen — during which a butterfly landed on her brow — has made the finals in that very same flute competition.

According to Performance Today host Fred Child, Ota is Principal Flutist in the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. And just now was named as one of three finalists at the Nielsen Competition.

Finals and announcement of winners happens Saturday, Sept. 20.

You can watch the three finalists’ performances live online, which will stream on the competition’s website.

The finals begin at 7 p.m. in Copenhagen, which is 12 noon Central Daylight Time.

Watch a montage of movie villains who love classical music

Clockwork Orange 425.jpg

Sure, Huey Lewis got his in American Psycho — but as any regular filmgoer has noticed, filmmakers absolutely love to make their villains aficionados of classical music.

There’s something irresistible about giving characters with brutal impulses a taste for the sophisticated pleasures of Beethoven (a particular favorite), Mozart, or Grieg; and setting horrendous acts to the music of the great composers creates a frisson that filmmakers seem to find hard to resist. It also creates the chilling suggestion that you never know where the killer lurks: you might put your guard up when you pass a bunch of tattooed bruisers on their way to a death metal show, but it’s the Chopin virtuoso who will stab you in the back — at least, according to the movies.

Slate has assembled a montage that demonstrates just how prevalent the villain-listening-to-classical-music meme has remained throughout the history of film. WARNING: This montage contains villains using obscene language, committing violent acts, and generally being the sort of people scary movies are made about.

Orchestra Rehearsal with Conductor Ferenc Fricsay

August 9 is the 100th birthday of the conductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914-63). Along with many recordings, he left behind a fascinating documentary for German TV, showing how conductor and orchestra work together in rehearsal.

For about 40 minutes, we see Fricsay rehearsing — a long time, but you can dip into it at any point. The music is familiar — Smetana’s “Moldau” (or “Vltava”), but Fricsay is totally engaged, despite his poor health: always bringing out some interesting detail, or encouraging or correcting the players, or indulging in some poetic metaphor (“The panther is ready to leap!”).

At the end of the documentary, at about 44:00, you’ll see the finished performance.

Lights, camera, classical! Fred Child makes a cameo in award-winning short film

Last night I attended a private screening of The Invitation, a short drama by Minnesota filmmaker Brad Birkeland, at the Heights Theater. During the film, I was surprised to hear a familiar voice: that of Performance Today host Fred Child. During a Q&A after the screening, I raised my hand to confirm: “Was that Classical MPR I heard in the film?” Indeed, replied the filmmaker, it was.

The Invitation tells the story of Thomas (Elliott Graber), a young man who’s been living alone for some time. When he returns to his vacationing parents’ home to make some repairs, he runs into his childhood crush Beth (Heidi Fellner), with whom he rekindles a romance over — this being Minnesota — lutefisk.

The film involves a flashback to Thomas’s childhood years, and Performance Today‘s Piano Puzzlers are heard in the background of both past and present scenes as connective tissue in the lives of Thomas and Beth, who are both pianists. Birkeland said he approached MPR with the idea to use the program in this way, and was pleased to receive permission to do so. The score also includes music by Mozart, Fauré, and Górecki; as well as an original song by Graber.

The Invitation premiered at this year’s WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it was honored with a Platinum Remi Award in the dramatic original shorts category. There are no immediate plans for another screening, but Birkeland says he plans to submit the film to additional film festivals, including some in Minnesota.