Classical Music Round-Up: January through March 2016

I’ve been on blogging hiatus for almost two months.  Here’s the low-down.

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Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (photo via)

It was announced that Gianandrea Noseda will take over the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra next season, while Jaap van Zweden will join the New York Philharmonic at the podium.  Two more white men in charge of major American orchestras?  No big surprise there, but Marin Alsop might have something to say.  Meanwhile, in Britain, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be the City of Birmingham Symphony’s new leading lady, at only 29 years old.  *applause*  And another young conductor on the rise: 25-year-old Jordan de Souza will be heading up Komische Oper Berlin.

We lost some greats in recent months: business mogul turned self-taught conductor Gilbert Kaplan; pioneering composer Pierre Boulez; Pulitzer-winning composers Leslie Bassett and Steven Stucky; Dallas Symphony leader Louis Lane; conducting pedagogue Otto-Werner Mueller; and — just today — maestro Nikolas Harnoncourt.

Now some feel-good stories: a Berlin horn player reflects on collaborating with Simon Rattle before the conductor relocates to London; Tafelmusik’s rendition of Beethoven 9 left one Toronto critic with nothing to criticize; bassist Jane Little just became the longest-serving orchestral musician ever, after 71 years with the Atlanta Symphony; and Ennio Morricone just won his first Oscar after working on the scores for over 500 films.

Mahan Esfahani’s harpsichord recital was interrupted by Baroque-head “rioters,” while scholars have discovered that the taxi horns in Gershwin’s An American in Paris might be pitched in the wrong key, and the Yale School of Music launched its first ever MOOC on Coursera.

As 2016 got off to an alarming start (Donald Trump, anyone?), diverse voices shone — from a powerful performance in a Harlem crypt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter; to violinist Rosemary Johnson and the UK’s Paramusical Ensemble making music through disability; to Julia Wolfe’s big-deal commission — a piece about American women in the workforce — for the New York Philharmonic’s 2018-19 season; to composer Georg Friedrich Haas’ open sexuality.

In U.S. politics, WQXR explored classical music on the campaign trail, while Bernie is, apparently, a gifted maestro.  And in the classical crime beat, an opera singer’s “screams” alerted Amsterdam police, a former St. Paul cellist was caught in a massive drug bust, and a rare French horn stolen six years ago was reunited with its owner.

In Iran, the women of the Tehran Symphony face oppression.  In Germany, an emergency refugee camp is filled with the music of a children’s choir.

Gustavo Dudamel led the Youth Orchestra L.A. at Superbowl halftime.  Grammy-winning violist Kim Kashkashian shares the woes of her name.  The Telegraph had a really interesting conversation with Renée Fleming, Anne Midgette profiled musicians who take time off from performing, and drama continues to unfold in the Buffalo Philharmonic oboe section.

A new Mozart opera was discovered and performed, while for the rest of the opera world, it’s same-old, same-old.

And finally, to end this round-up with a smile: watch a Bach duet played by a 90-year-old husband and wife.

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Classical Music Round-Up: 11/1/15

Classical Conditioning presents this week’s worthwhile reads.  (Actually, two weeks’ worth of worthwhile reads — I forgot to post last week!)

Breaking News

Live performances of video game soundtracks, such as ‘Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses’ (above), promise to offset declining ticket sales for U.S. orchestras, according to the Wall Street Journal article linked below.  (image via)

Deep Thoughts

In the Spotlight

Historical Proportions

Just for Fun

Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers #1: A cellist’s plea for peace

This marks the first post in an ongoing series that I’m calling “Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers.”  The title comes from the poem Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (which happens to have been set to music by Edward Elgar):

We are the music makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams,

Wandering by lone sea-breakers,

And sitting by desolate streams;–

World-losers and world-forsakers,

On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers

Of the world for ever, it seems.

Throughout this series, I’ll be profiling several recent, interesting, and impactful intersections of music and society.  These posts will continue weekly leading up to an incredible event taking place July 17 in New York City — The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights.  I’ll be interviewing the event’s producer next week; until then, visit their website here to learn more about this amazing project that is using music and art as a platform for social change.

Speaking of music and social change… Back in the beginning of May, images of a cellist performing at the site of a Baghdad bombing went viral.

The cellist is Karim Wasfi, the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra — and before I even get to Wasfi’s moving outdoor performance, let’s learn a bit about the miracle that is the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.

Its first incarnation was as a string quartet founded in 1939, which grew into the Baghdad Philharmonic by the 1950s.  Its members are Sunni and Shiite, Christian and Kurdish, all making music side by side.  The orchestra has played all over the world, from Iraqi Kurdistan to D.C.’s Kennedy Center (a 2003 performance with President Bush in the audience).  Wartime power outages have meant rehearsals in the dark and stifling heat; extremists who oppose Western and secular art are a constant and very real threat; and several of the musicians have fled to safer borders — and yet, the orchestra continues to give free concerts in Baghdad, its 900-capacity auditorium brimming with supporters. Continue reading

Suggested Listening: “Berceuse” by Armas Järnefelt

I discovered this fantastic piece a long time ago but never put in the effort to research this obscure composer — until now!  Listen to this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC — Armas Järnefelt’s gorgeous Berceuse, performed below by cellist Seppo Laamanen with pianist Jouni Somero (FI).

About the Composer:

NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog profiled today’s protagonist in their “Classical Lost and Found” feature (read it here) — and “lost and found” indeed is an apt description for Armas Järnefelt (1869-1958).  The son of a Finnish military general (Aleksander Järnefelt, who was also, randomly, one of Finland’s most important topographers), Armas grew up with eight other siblings — including brothers Arvid, a noted writer, and Eero, a renowned landscape painter.  The nine Järnefelt kids were raised with military strictness, but also instilled with a deep awareness of and admiration for Finnish culture.

Armas showed great musical aptitude at a very early age, but as a young adult decided to simultaneously enroll in both the Helsinki Institute of Music (today’s famous Sibelius Academyand the law program at the University of Helsinki.  Ultimately, he dedicated himself fully to music.  His teachers included Ferruccio Busoni (the Italian composer and pianist famous for his interpretive transcriptions of Bach keyboard works) as well as Jules Massenet (the great French opera composer), and years spent in Berlin and Paris exposed him to a vast array of musical styles and perspectives.  His first marriage, to Finnish opera star Maikki Pakarinen, opened him up to a love of opera, and his earlier encounters with the dramatic, bombastic operas of Richard Wagner while in Berlin led the couple to visit Wagner’s home base of Bayreuth on several occasions.  In fact, Armas Järnefelt was the first Finn to conduct Wagner’s operas in Finland.

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Suggested Listening: “Allegro molto vivace” from Sonata in B minor, Op. 8 by Zoltán Kodály

Aaaand we’re back!  Sorry for disappearing (again)… Here’s a brand-new SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC to get things back on track: the third movement from Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata in B minor for solo cello, Op. 8, performed below by Sebastian Bäverstam (US).

About the Composer:

Zoltán Kodály* (1882-1967) was about as Hungarian as a person could possibly be.  Born in central Hungary, trained at the Budapest Academy of Music, and recipient of degrees in Hungarian literature, composition, music education, and, in 1906, a PhD for his “thorough structural analysis of Hungarian folksong” (AllMusic), Kodály was a man of many talents — a renowned composer as well as an ethnomusicologist, pedagogue, and hero of Hungarian culture.  While working on his PhD dissertation, Kodály frequently headed out into the Hungarian countryside, visiting remote villages to study and collect folk songs.  (Here’s a really cool example of a field recording, a Hungarian folk song recorded on a wax cylinder by Kodály’s friend and colleague Béla Bartók.)  In an era when Hungary was grappling for its own identity independent of the Empire to which it belonged, following an 1848 revolution and now on the precipice of a Great War fraught with nationalistic identity crises, Kodály’s passionate promotion of music that was wholly and uniquely Hungarian was vital in the development of a national culture of which Hungary was proud.

*pronounced “koh-DAHY”

About the Piece:

Written in 1915 — one year after the outbreak of World War I, in which over 4 million of the 9 million soldiers drafted by the Austro-Hungarian Empire were Hungarian, and which ultimately brought about Hungarian independence — Kodály’s Sonata in B minor, Op. 8 is as culturally poignant as it is musically significant.  Kodály was deemed unfit to fight in the war, so he served instead as a volunteer defending Budapest’s monuments and historical sites, all the while continuing his studies of Hungarian folk music.  Due to the war, the sonata would not be performed until 1918, when it was premiered in Budapest and quickly became one of the most important works for solo cello since Bach’s suites composed two centuries earlier.  By Kodály’s own prediction, “In twenty-five years no cellist will be accepted who has not played it.”  This final movement of the sonata’s three, marked allegro molto vivace (“very fast and lively”) is an all-out folk-song romp.  Kodály transforms the cello into a fiddle, agile and energetic and resonant, transplanted from the Hungarian countryside to the concert hall.  The above video is by no means the seminal recording — for that, check out this recording by János Starker, whose interpretation of the piece Kodály himself approved of — but what I love about Sebastian Bäverstam’s performance, besides his obvious technical skill, is how casual he makes it seem, just a guy in a T-shirt playing the hell out of one of the most objectively awesome pieces in the cello repertoire.

If you liked this movement from Sonata in B minor, you might also enjoy…

More Game Changers: 5 Groups Redefining the Classical Music Experience

In a continuation of an earlier post, listed below are five incredible ensembles that are changing the way classical music is performed and perceived.  Note that these aren’t replacements for traditional soloists, chamber groups, and orchestras — rather, they’re fantastic additions to the classical music experience, providing unique options for an audience newly developing an interest in classical music.

  1. Arabesque Winds (MI, NY, PA, & TX) >> These lovely ladies are an extremely accomplished chamber group.  As a quintet, they’ve racked up some of the world’s top chamber music prizes; as individuals, they each hold esteemed orchestral, solo, and teaching positions.  They play almost exclusively from memory, which makes their performances absolutely mesmerizing by way of their deep and instant connection with each other and with the audience.  The Arabesque Winds are dedicated to community outreach, collaborating with and presenting at various schools and educational programs, including the Kennedy Center‘s Performing Arts for Everyone initiative.  Plus, they’re all super nice people — the perfect advocates for classical music as an important facet of every community. 
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