Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Career-spanning chamber music

Daren Hagen
Complete Piano Trios
Finisterra Trio

The four piano trios on this release come from two distinct phases of Daron Hagen’s career. The first two, written in 1984 and 1986 respectively, are works by a young composer just finding his way. The first trio, the “Trio Concertante” was written while Hagen was studying with David Diamond, and reflects the older composer’s style (at least to my ears).

“J’etands,” Hagen’s second trio, was inspired by Nadia Boulanger’s final words. Like the first, it leans more towards atonality, but in the longer melodic lines you can hear Hagen’s individuality beginning to emerge. He has the instruments toss ideas and motifs back and forth in a masterful fashion that always keeps the music moving forward.

Fast forward fifteen years to the creation of the third and fourth piano trios.  Both of these works are based on American folk melodies. By this time Hagen’s fully developed as a composer, and uses these tunes in a way that shows he’s comfortable with his abilities and doesn’t need to prove a thing to anyone.

He embraces a more tonal style for these last two trios, without sacrificing originality. In Piano Trio No. 3, “Wayfaring Stranger,” the tune forms basis of second movement played more or less straight. In the other movements, different aspects of the melody chopped up and rearranged. The tune makes a reappearance at the end of the fourth movement (Aubade and Variations), tying the entire composition together.

The final trio, “Angel Band” uses the Appalachian gospel song as a starting point. As with the third trio, the tune is reduced to its primary musical elements, which are then used to create new sonic structures. While the listener never gets a straight-forward statement of the original melody (save at the conclusion of the work), it clearly drives the structure and direction of the piece.

If you’re looking for something a little more substantial than Americana tricked out in classical garb, I can highly recommend this disc. All four trios are solidly constructed, and have enough depth to reward repeated listening.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A kinder, gentler Beethoven

Ferdinand Ries: Piano Concertos, Volume 4
Christopher Hinterhuber, piano
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Uwe Grodd, conductor
Naxos 8.572088

Ferdinand Ries is best remembered today (if at all) as Beethoven's personal assistant. Although he served that role well - securing performances, publication deals and more - that wasn't originally why their paths crossed. Ries came to Beethoven in 1803 to study composition. Like his mentor, Ries was a piano virtuoso as well as a composer. His piano concertos were written primarily for his own use, to provide material he could use in performance - a standard practice of the day for any touring virtuoso.

Naxos has released four volumes of Ries' concerti, the most recent featuring two of these works plus a shorter fantasia for piano and orchestra. So what does Ries' music sound like? Sort of like a kinder, gentler Beethoven. His works have the same general structure, with some of the same harmonic turns that Beethoven favored. You'll also hear big orchestral chords hammering away at important cadence points. But there the similarities end.

Ries is more concerned with tuneful melodies than delivering pronouncements from on high. His motifs are light and appealing. While the solo piano part is challenging technically, it's more about taking the listener along on a thrilling melodic journey rather than fully exploring the potential of either the instrument or the motifs.

Stylistically, Ferdinand Ries straddles the late classical and early romantic era. The Introduction et Rondeau Brillant Wo54 which appears on this release, is a good illustration of that. While not entirely free of Beethoven's influence, Ries' work seems more Schubertian in its free-form development.

Pianist Christopher Hinterhuber turns in a top-notch performance on this recording (as does Uwe Grodd and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra). His playing is light and fluid -- perfectly suited to this material -- yet it has power when it needs to. Hinterhuber really makes the cadenzas sparkle, and gives the impression that Ries' music is actually fun to play.

An appealing collection of works for piano and orchestra!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Furtwangler's 2nd Symphony gets sympathetic treatment

Furtwangler: Symphony No. 2
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Euguen Jochum, conductor
BR-Klassic, 2010 (mono recording)

Some music is so durably constructed that it can withstand the poorest performance. If a badly-lead ensemble provided your first exposure to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, I think you’d still be able to determine that the failings were with the musicians and not the score.

But some music requires a little extra love to make it shine. That’s the case with Wilhelm Furtwangler’s 2nd Symphony. Furtwangler -- like Mahler -- was highly regarded as a conductor, but always thought of himself first as a composer. Like Mahler, his works were largely ignored during his lifetime, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike Mahler, Furtwangler’s music has  never really caught on.

For a long time I believed it was completely the fault of the music. Furtwangler thought big – perhaps too big. His orchestral works are massive, and even his chamber pieces tend to push the one-hour mark. Plus, Furtwangler used Bruckner’s technique of gradually building to a dramatic climax, stopping, and then doing it again, giving me the impression that the work never really got off the ground.

In some of the recordings I’ve heard, the orchestra was clearly doing little more than sight-reading, and the conductor seemed to be just trying to get through the thing. As a result, the music never really engaged me. This new release with Eugen Jochum conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a live 1954 performance of Furtwangler’s 2nd Symphony is another matter entirely.

Jochum was a close friend of Furtwangler, and took the time necessary to really get to know the score. The aging Furtwangler had been invited by Jochum to attend the performance, and he sat in on the orchestra’s rehearsals. But Furtwangler died nine days before the concert, and the work was then performed instead as part of a memorial concert.

Jochum (probably aided by Furtwangler’s input) had the big picture, and it shows. Rather than hearing a symphony that started and stopped, with Jochum I senses that the music was actually going somewhere. Although Furtwangler’s melodies still don’t fully stick with me, I was astonished at some of the quite beautiful passages (particularly in the fourth movement) that grew organically out of the material. Jochum knew exactly what to highlight and what to move to the background to make sense of this work.

Is Furtwangler’s 2nd Symphony a great composition? No. But the sympathetic and skillful conducting of Eugen Jochum makes the case that it is a very good work. And one that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gisela! in Dresden

Gisela!: The Strange and Memorable Ways of Happiness, a musical theater piece by Hans Werner Henze, Christian Lehnert, and Michael Kerstan, was given its premiere on November 20, 2010, at the Semperoper in Dresden. The work was commissioned by the Ruhrtriennale and the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden. It is a peculiar work. The central character Gisela meets her true love Gennaro in Naples and is willing to renounce her German fiancé for him, if her new "Italian lover" is only willing to appreciate the beauties of Oberhausen in Germany's former industrial heartland, now a cultural center, the Ruhrgebiet. In the end Gisela finds true love after passing through numerous stages of fantasy, ecstasy, and sometimes violent confrontation. The work is barely 90 minutes in length, so its various themes are hardly developed. Still, the music is both approachable and, at times, charming.

Like much of contemporary opera, the staging was a mix of the literal and fantastical. The opening is set in the terminal of a modern European airport, but the interaction between Gisela and Gennaro is viewed as a film projection at the back of the stage. At various points dancers appear, and Gennaro is a member of a commedia dell'arte troupe. There is no discernable dramatic narrative. Instead, the opera is a collage of sometimes vivid images and impressions, augmented by the musical score. At times Henze quotes the music of Bach and others, but the musical language is predominantly that of contemporary neo-tonality. Henze uses percussion effectively as a musical motif.

The title character Gisela was sung by Nadja Mchantaf, Gennaro by Giorgio Berrugi, and
Hanspeter by Markus Butter. The State Opera Choir and Staatskapelle Dresden were vividly conducted by Erik Nielsen. Mchantaf, a native of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, was especially effective dramatically, musically, and visually. Gisela, if for no reason other than its brevity, is unlikely to enter the standard repertoire by itself, although paired with Henze's earlier opera, L'Upupa, acclaimed at its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2003, it might provide an enjoyable evening's entertainment.

An Aural Holiday Tradition

It's that time of year again, when many people break out the Advent calendars and count down the days until Christmas (we won't say whether it's with anticipation or dread). One of my favorite versions is the musical Advent calendar posted on the Omniscient Mussel's website.

"Miss Mussel" is free-lance classical music writer Marcia Adair, and each day during advent she picks a different classical (mostly) performance and work. (Extra points if you know what opera the Omniscient Mussel appears in)

Rather than opening a tab on a paper calendar, you just click the "play" button and enjoy. The selections have always ranged from the familiar to the obscure, and I look forward to seeing -- and listening to -- each day's post.

This year the calendar duties have been taken over by "Frere Mussel," a professional singer living in Germany. The selections are different, but still top-notch.

If you're looking for something more than the same old same old musically, I highly recommend the Omniscient Mussel's Advent Calendar.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Return of the Radio Star

Tomorrow morning, I will be back on the air as the host of "Gamut," and I promise a very special show.

So where have I been? Well, health issues forced me to give up the program back in August, and I was not able to return until this week. Things are much better now, and so I'm back (I know some people will want more information, but the folks that need to know the details of my condition already know, so let's just leave it at that).

So what to do after a three-month absence? This past summer when it looked like WTJU would drop classical programming entirely, I decided I would have a final show ready just in case. As you know, thanks to the support from the community, that didn't happen, so I shelved the program.

Normally, "Gamut" is about surveying the length and breadth of classical music -- which is why I never repeat a work on the show (easiest way to force me to move on). For that final show, though, I thought I would take a look back and play some of my favorite works that perhaps you might have missed.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed the right way to return to the air. So tomorrow it will be survey of some of my favorite works that I've aired before. Next week, we'll return to our normal survey mode.

So what can you expect? Works both short and long. I'd like to share the Hessenberg Second Symphony with you, one of the best-constructed works of the 20th Century in my opinion. I'll also be playing a symphony by Hovhaness, Steve Reich's "Clapping Music," and perhaps a few other contemporary goodies.

If I can find the disc, I'll air some baroque music by Heinichen, a Hummel piano concerto, and Tallis' "Spem in Alum" for 40 voices. Perhaps some Dvorak, Palestrina, Praetorious, and even some Machaut if I can find the time.

I'm thankful to be back, and especially grateful to all of my colleagues in the classical department who stepped forward and volunteered to keep the show going. If you think it's a sacrifice to get up early once a week to put on a radio show at six in the morning, try doing it twice a week! That's what some of our dedicated volunteers did. And remember, none of us get paid -- we do this for the love of the music.

If you're excited about my return (or not), if you too feel grateful to the folks who kept "Gamut" going, then please remember to share the love when our Classical Fund-Raising Music Marathon starts in a few weeks. As much as I appreciate the phone calls and the well-wishes, it's how much comes in from listeners to help fund the operation of WTJU that will really speak volumes.

I look forward to returning to the airways tomorrow, so we can continue our exploration of this amazingly diverse world of classical music together. Remember: "Gamut" 6-9 AM exclusively on WTJU, 91.1FM.

It's a date.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A random act of culture

What if you were shopping in a crowded Macy's and the person next to you suddenly started singing Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus? Right. I'd begin shuffling away as quickly as possible. But what if it wasn't just one shopper, but 630? And what if they were accompanied by one of the most famous organs in the world?

Now that's a different situation.

The Knight Foundation has been funding a series of guerilla performances under the rubric of "Random Acts of Culture." The idea is take the arts out of the stage, concert hall and other venues where they're isolated from the general public, and place them right where ordinary people congregate.

The "Hallelujah" chorus project was the foundation's most ambitious project to date. The Macy's Departmant store in Philadelphia is home to the Wanamaker Organ, the world's largest pipe organ. Over 600 trained choristors (the core coming from the Opera Company of Philadelphia) from the area were recuited to mingle among the holiday shoppers. When the organ started the introduction, magic happened -- as you can see from the following video. Sorry I don't live in Philadelphia!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Celebration of Schmaltz (with a little Schumann too)

If you're a fan of live organ music, here's a chance to hear a real pro. The Charlottesville-Albemarle Chapter of the American Guild of Organists presents a program entitled “A Celebration of Schmaltz (with a little Schumann too)” at 7:30pm on Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at First Presbyterian Church, 500 Park Street, Charlottesville, VA. The event, part of the Chapter’s 35th anniversary celebration, is free and open to the public and will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of composer Robert Schumann and the 30th anniversary of the death of organ virtuoso Virgil Fox.

Visiting Organist Brink Bush from Providence, Rhode Island, will perform the music of J. S. Bach, Schumann, and Wilhelm Middelschulte in the context of virtuoso organist Virgil Fox. Mr. Bush edited "The Innermost Secrets" by T. Ernest Nichols, a book about Fox’s legendary technique.

Mr. Bush is the Organist & Director of Music for the Cathedral of St. John, Providence RI. He is one of the leading interpreters of German Romantic organ music in the world today. He has performed throughout the United States and abroad. He performed at Trinity Church Wall St. for the "Virgil Fox Legacy Twenty-fifth Anniversary Concert Weekend" in October 2005. In 2005 he also edited "The Innermost Secrets" by T. Ernest Nichols, a book about Virgil Fox’s legendary technique.

Brink Bush studied organ at Peabody Institute, the Juilliard School, and the Eastman School of Music with David Craighead, Robert Elmore, Russell Saunders and Rosalyn Tureck. His first compact disc, Volume 1 of the Complete Works of Wilhelm Middelschulte, was released in October of 1999. He is also the primary contributor to the new Complete Organ Works of Middelschulte published in 2007 by Baerenreiter.

At 6pm on Sunday, November 7, Mr. Bush will appear as my guest on WTJU’s The King of Instruments which airs every Sunday evening from 6 - 7pm on 91.1FM and streams live at

Friday, October 29, 2010

The King of Instruments presents Scary Music for Halloween

Tune in Halloween Evening, Sunday 31 October from 6 to 7 pm, for the Annual Scary Music Organ Show which will include Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV 565, among other SCARY musical offerings.

This music is the perfect accompaniment to your Halloween...billowing from your haunted house to greet your trick or treaters! So tune in and turn up the volume LOUD!

Morbidly interesting (?) side note: the legendary actor Vincent Price died on Oct. 25, 1993, so I thought it was a creepily cosmic convergence that the death of an actor so renowned for his career in horror films would accompany the debut of the very first Annual Scary Music show a scant 6 days later on Halloween Sunday, Oct. 31, 1993.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Beethoven: The Darth Vader Variations

Richard Grayson is a talented pianist and composer who's just burst onto the Internet. The video below has been making the rounds through the classical stations in the public radio system.

As a composer and performer, Grayson's equally at home with high and low culture, and has developed a fairly unique talent -- in his concerts and recitals, he often improvising ina classical style, transforming popular tunes in the process.

The following video is a good representation of Grayson's art. The subject of this theme and variations is "Darth Vader's Theme" by John Williams. The treatement is pure early Beethoven, and the result, while perhaps not strictly classical, is a very enjoyable listening experience and great fun besides.

Sound quality isn't the best, but just let the video run. It won't be long before you'll hear through the distractions.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Brendel In Retirement

The Gramophone Awards ceremony took place October 1, 2010, in London. Recipient of a richly deserved lifetime achievement award was the great pianist Alfred Brendel, an Austrian born January 5, 1931, in the former Czechoslovakia, who has lived for many years in London. Recently retired in 2008, Brendel explored the great Austro-German piano repertoire to the delight of audiences around the world for almost a half century. Some listeners have characterized his playing as being analytical or cerebral. He has said that he believes the primary job of the pianist is to respect the composer's wishes without showing off himself, or adding his own particular stamp on the music. "I am responsible to the composer, and particularly to the piece," he has said. He cites Alfred Cortot, Wilhelm Kempff, and the conductors Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler as particular influences.

Fortunately we have a memento of his art at the conclusion of his career with a superb recording of concert performances in Halle and Vienna, the latter in Vienna's magnificent Musikverein, with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who died July 14, 2010. The recording features music of Mozart and Schubert, two of the composers at the core of his repertoire. Brendel fortunately left a vast recorded legacy.

Brendel performed many times at the Salzburg Festival, where this writer had the privilege of hearing him. If there is one indispensable Brendel recording, it would be his own selection of live performances from Salzburg in 1960-61, released on the Festival's own label. The program includes Haydn, Andante with variations for piano in F minor, H. 17/6, and Keyboard Sonata in C major, H. 16/50; Schubert, Piano Sonata No. 14 in A minor ("Grande Sonate"), D. 784 (Op. posth. 143); and Piano Sonata No. 15 in C major ("Relique"), D. 840; and Liszt, Isoldens Liebestod: Schlußszene aus Tristan und Isolde, transcription for piano (after Wagner), S. 447 (LW A239).

Brendel is at the peak of his powers. The Liszt transcription comes as close to the performance of a great singer as a pianist can manage. The sound quality is warm and resonant. Brendel's Schubert is matched by few and excelled by none. He has recorded the sonatas and other piano works a number of times, but the live performances recorded in the 1980s of D575, 894, 959 & 960, released on Philips are among the best. For those listeners who are just discovering Brendel, you will hear one of the great pianists of his era.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Happy Birthday Arvo Part!

Arvo Part turned 75 on 11 September 2010, and the music world received the gift of the release of Mr. Part’s Symphony No. 4 (“Los Angeles”), composed in 2008. The symphony was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. on 9 January 2009. Since then, it has been performed in New York and, most recently, at the Proms in London, to rave reviews.

The symphony comes 38 years after Mr. Part’s Third Symphony and is dedicated to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been imprisoned in Siberia, presumably on political grounds, since 2003. The liner notes to the CD contain the quote “il perdono e le grazie sono necessarie in proporzione dell’ assurdita delle leggi e dell’ atrocita delle condanne.” Cesare Beccaria. (pardon and grace are necessary in proportion to the absurdity of the laws and the atrocity of the sentences). Mr. Part states that “the tragic tone of the symphony is not a lament for Khodorkovsky, but a bow to the great power of the human spirit and dignity.”

I recently aired the new recording on my Sunday morning radio show, “Classical Sunrise,” and I have listened to the symphony several times both before and after. The piece is exceedingly beautiful and other-worldly, like much of Mr. Part’s music in recent decades. I am particularly a fan of his choral music, and the symphony has much the same spiritual and mystical dimension that I so admire in those works. And, like his choral music, the symphony is based on an underlying, albeit unspoken, text, the Orthodox Canon of the Guardian Angel. The liner notes tell us that even before Mr. Part began composing the symphony, he had been thinking about texts related to guardian angels. When he received the commission from the L.A. Philharmonic, whose namesake city means “the angels,” the choice of text was clear.

Symphony No. 4 is scored for strings, harp, and percussion. It opens in a slow shimmer of strings and reflects the meditative, minimalist style that Mr. Part developed and that he terms “tintinnabulation.” This aesthetic style stems from his study in the late 1960s and early 1970s of medieval music. The chimes throughout the work also evoke the characteristic ringing of church bells. The symphony has 3 movements: the first, marked “Con sublimita,” needs no explanation, as the entire work is sublime. The second movement, marked “Affannoso,” gave me some pause. This term in Italian could mean “labored” (i.e., as in breath) or, more figuratively, frantic. Which was it? It’s both. The slow, almost labored, pace of the strings in the second movement is punctuated with the insistent urging of percussion. Finally, the last movement is marked “Deciso,” i.e., decided, bold, or with decision. To me, music this ethereal somewhat belies the notion of “bold,” but towards the end of the movement the percussion decidedly underscores Mr. Part’s vision, until the percussion too fades away into the mist.

The 2010 ECM recording also includes fragments of Mr. Part’s “Kanon Pokajanen,” a 1997 composition performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Tonu Kaljuste, to whom the work is dedicated.

 - Deborah Murray

Monday, August 9, 2010

What's My (Melodic) Line?

Think of any game show currently on the air. Now picture the host and contestants for that show. Now picture the arrival of a prominent American composer -- say, John Adams -- onto the program. What do you think the reaction would be? Would the host even recognize Adams, much less have anything intelligent to say to him? What about the other contestants? How would they react?

It all sounds very surreal, doesn't it? But there was a time when this actually happened.

"What's My Line?" was a succesful, if somewhat sedate, game show that ran from 1950 to 1967. The show was basically a variant on 20 questions. A mystery guest would sign in, and a celebrity panel  would attempt to guess their occupation, or sometimes their identity. The panel consisted of some of the brightest and sophisticated wits of the New York scene, and it wasn't often they were stumped.

On September 30, 1962, composer William Schuman was the mystery guest -- a figure recognizable enough that the panel had to be blindfolded. Here's the clip from that show. What I find interesting is that it's clear the audience also knows who he is, and that the panel does, too. I wonder if John Adams would fair equally well on "Deal or No Deal."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Thank you

Thank you to everyone who came out to the WTJU Town Hall meeting this past Monday. I was afraid that we would have an empty room with 20 people scattered about, but instead approximately 250 volunteers and listeners crammed the hall and flowed out into the lobby. Such a public show of support impressed the decision makers, I think. And at the very least it made me feel very grateful and humble.

I'm grateful that there are folks who care as deeply about the music we play as our volunteer announcers. Grateful that so many would show up on a miserable, rainy evening to show their support. Radio listening is a very passive activity -- we're grateful you share our passion.

I'm humbled by the thought that so many care. As you can imagine, doing "Gamut" every week for the past 19 years has led to a little bit of complacency. There have been times when I've not been at the top of my game, when I didn't choose the music as carefully as I could have. I've sometimes forgotten what a privilege it's been to serve this audience without the constraints my colleagues at other classical-format station face.

But this station isn't about me -- it's about you, the listener. All those who showed up to the Town Hall meeting demonstrated how strong their connection to the music we present is. And because of their action, I promise to redouble my effort to make every minute of "Gamut" worthy of your attention.

The station will still be changing soon, and listener input will play a role in the direction of that change. Those who showed up at the meeting did more than their part -- but even if you couldnattend, you can still make your voice heard.

Visit or call 434-971-8678 to leave your comments on how you think WTJU can improve to meet its newest challenges.

In the meantime, we'll just keep doing what we do best -- providing you with the best classical, jazz, rock, folk, and world music we can find. Music that's we hope you'll continue love as much as we do.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Mystique of the "Faux" Opera Singer

Every generation seems to produce singers, who although not opera singers, are nonetheless compared to opera singers. Opera fans often hear the comment, "Oh, you like opera. You must like Bocelli."

Andrea Bocelli, possessor of slender technique and a vapid, lyric tenor voice, could hardly hold his own on the operatic stage. Yet he has an appealing personality and a bright, even brittle voice that lends itself to popular song, so the popularity of his recordings is understandable. He is hardly an opera singer.

What brings this topic to mind is an article in the July 2010 edition of Opera News about the late Mario Lanza. Lanza was born at a time, 1921, and in a place, South Philadelphia, where the operatic tradition permeated the large Italian-American community. He was possessed of a rich, full-bodied Italianate voice that, with nurturing and training, might have developed into a fine tenor in the lyric opera repertoire. His fame was assured with the success of the 1951 film The Great Caruso, in which he starred as the title character.

As an historical document, the film was laughable, but some fine singers from the Metropolitan Opera stable of that era, among them Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, and Lucine Amara, were persuaded to make cameo appearances. Little if any of their performances survived the final cut, but their presence in the cast lent some legitimacy to Lanza's operatic pretensions that his career did not merit. He sang during his brief life only three operatic performances, two in New Orleans and one in Tanglewood, none of them with any particular distinction.

Operatic tenors, to be sure, often are notorious for their self-indulgence, but none reached the level attained by Lanza. He died in 1959 from a heart attack brought on by substance abuse and obesity.

Not all great singers are blessed with great voices. But even those that are as prodigiously gifted vocally as was Luciano Pavarotti must still work hard and continuously to master their art. Early in his career when he was adopted as a favored colleague by Joan Sutherland, Pavarotti devoted himself to the craft of singing. Later in life he succumbed to the lure of celebrity and became so self-indulgent that he was fired by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Lanza had no discipline. His fame was fleeting, but he left no enduring record of vocal accomplishment, unlike Pavarotti, some of whose recordings are among the glories of the tenor repertoire. Lanza's recordings are those of a highly gifted and promising amateur.

A few singers, Lawrence Tibbett comes to mind, were able to bridge the worlds of popular music and opera. Did Lanza have the talent to do so? We'll never know. But we do know that he lacked the motivation and work ethic that is the hallmark of every successful opera singer. Great voices are born, but great singers are made.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

WTJU's Changing --

Big changes are coming to WTJU, and they'll be here in August.

We are at a juncture in the life of 53-year-old WTJU where change is needed in order to build listenership, student involvement and revenue. This is your invitation to help shape the station.

Our current schedule is being revised, and the future of classical music at the station -- and how it fits into this plan -- is up for discussion.

You can be part of that discussion. The University of Virginia has set up a forum where listeners (like yourself) and station volunteers (like me) can have their say. And your voice does matter.

One of the features of the change is to make the schedule more consistent by moving each genre to its own part of the day. That means that at the very least, our evening classical programming will go away.

Already slated to be canceled:

The Early Music Show, our self-produced program of medieval and renaissance music.

Five-Star Edition, which featured outstanding contemporary and archival performances of the basic repertoire.

Eventide, with Andrew Pratt - lush, romantic music for evening listening

A Time for Singing - An Shaffer's long-running show (over 20 years) showcasing the great opera singers.

Portrait of the Artist - Our weekly look at a great composer, performer, or ensemble.

Mitchell with Music - The avuncular John Mitchell's long-running program of classical music and artist interviews.

What happens to our morning classical programming? And our Sunday afternoon opera? And our other programs? That depends, in part, on you and your response to the forum's survey.

Now is the time for all good listeners to come to the aid of their music. Because come August, everything changes. Participate in the forum, and have a say in the direction of that change.

WTJU Forum

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Help Write a Symphony - #twittercomposition

British composer Sam Watts is writing a symphony -- with a lot of help. A savvy user of social media, he's asked people to contribute to the new work by sending in a note through Twitter. As he explains in his blog A Composer's Campfire,
It’s madness, I know, but I’m asking as many Twitter users as possible to tweet me with a musical note (A-G, naturals, sharps and flats) and these notes will, in the order I receive them, be the melody of the composition.  It will be a three or four movement symphony (depending on how many notes I get).
Tweet me (@i_is_sam) with your choice of note (you can even specify note duration if you like) and include the hashtag #twittercomposition! Only one note per tweeter please! Then please tweet about it to all your followers to get them involved.  That’s it.  I’ll do the rest. 
 You can also just to a search for #twittercomposition to find out more.

In his most recent post, Watts talks about the development of the composition. It looks like it's going to be a symphony, probably in three movements. The core melody will be 140 notes (Twitter limits messages to 140 characters).

#twittercomposition is a rare opportunity to see the creative process at work. Because the composition's based on social media interaction, we can watch the work evolve from inception to completion.

Will the #TwitterComposition be the greatest symphony in the world? Perhaps not, but by the nature of its creation, it will very much be a symphony of the world

Monday, June 21, 2010

Kings of the High Cs

Today an operatic tenor who does not have a ringing, full voiced “top” is likely to find his career limited to minor roles in lesser opera houses. The high C sung full voiced from the chest is a phenomenon that dates only from the first third of the 19th Century. Until the time of Donizetti and Bellini, a light, agile voice, was the ideal for tenors. Today, we would call that kind of singer a tenore di grazia, and it is no longer considered ideal, at least in the operas of Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and their successors.

Before about 1835, the legacy of the castrati was a light, agile, but technically accomplished singing style. One of the finest singers of this type was the French tenor Adolphe Nourrit, a cultured man as well as a fine tenor who created some of the most brilliant tenor roles of Rossini and Meyerbeer. At the Paris Opera, he was the king of tenors, the favorite of Rossini himself. The fine French tenor Giovanni David, the creator of the role of Rodrigo in Rossini’s Otello in 1816, is said to have begun experimenting with pushing the “chest voice” above the tenor’s “break” (where the chest voice begins to yield to the head voice, or falsetto) at high G.

But the real change occurred in 1837, when the tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez, newly returned to Paris from a triumphant stay in Italy, stunned the audience at the Paris Opéra, with a series of chest-voice top Cs in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. The style of agile, light-voiced tenors like Nourrit was eclipsed virtually overnight, seemingly for good. Thereafter the tenor who could not manage an interpolated high C in the aria Di quella pira in Verdi’s Il trovatore (which is not in the score) was liable to find himself hooted off the stage, especially in Italy. Heroic, dramatic tenors such as Caruso and Gigli became the leading stars of the operatic stage throughout much of the 20th Century.

We have seen the rebirth of the Rossini tenor repertoire recently, with the appearance of such fine singers as Juan Diego Florez, Lawrence Brownlee, and others. While they sing full-voiced throughout their range, the head voice plays a role in the astounding agility with which these singers execute Rossini’s extremely difficult music for the tenor voice. As a result we are hearing some of the finest performances of Rossini’s music today since the music was first performed almost 200 years ago.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sipes and the Artful Fugue

Erica Ann Sipes is a talented pianist and cellist living and working in Blacksburg, Virginia. Her blog always provides interesting insights on music performance. Her recent post, "Fugues, Glorious Fugues" manages -- in a few short paragraphs -- to present impressions of this form from the inside as a performer, and on the outside as a casual listener.

Sipes also includes this wonderful video from Lenzorg (and you know how we love fugal videos).

Erica Ann Sipes writes;

I love it when music is magical.
I love it when beauty is combined with order.
I love fugues!

We couldn't agree more.

How to Listen to Classical Music -- w/o baggage

Benjamin F. Carlson continues his excellent series of posts about appreciating classical music. Written in a no-nonsense manner, Carlson's goal is to introduce his fellow twentysomethings to the genre, in part by stripping away all of the perceptions about classical music that just get in the way.

How to Listen to Classical Music, and Enjoy It makes a number of good points, but there's one that really gets to the heart of what classical music on WTJU is all about (and something we think about all the time).

Carlson writes:
One of the first challenges is muzak. Stores play treacly strings as background music for shoppers. Many people have been led to associate the soft bowing of Mozart symphonies with soporific browsing. This is the antithesis of the intended effect. Audience members famously burst into violence at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, as they did, in a more deadly way, at Altamont. Indeed, Stravinsky and Mozart are no more background noise than the Rolling Stones—or Django Reinhardt, Lauryn Hill, Animal Collective, or Kanye West. To enjoy any of them, you have to be engaged. 
That's why here at WTJU we often break the unwritten rules of classical programming for the radio. We'll play solo vocal works, complete multi-movement works, contemporary compositions, choral works, medieval and renaissance music, complete operas, and more -- because this is what classical music's all about.

No, some if it won't be appropriate for the dentist's waiting room, but that's not the point. There's more to ice cream than vanilla (or even chocolate). And there's more to classical music than Easy Listening.

Rock on, Mr. Carlson!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What does it take to enjoy classical music? Just ears.

It's funny how consistent the comments are when folks discover I host a classical music program on WTJU. "Wow, you must be smart to listen to classical music." "I guess you have to know a lot about classical music to appreciate it." "I don't have a degree in music, so I just listen to [insert any other musical genre here]."

Well, none of that needs to be true. I've always said you just have to listen with open ears and an open mind. Embrace the works that move you, and pass on the ones that don't. Never mind about what you think you "should" like, or what the experts think are the non plus ultra. It's just between you and the music.

But you do have to listen, or you'll completely miss out on what could be a life-changing experience.

And that's part of the point Benjamin F. Carlson made in his Atlantic post aptly titled "The Secret to Classical Music: It's Just Music." He writes:

My thesis is that people aren't listening [to classical music] because they haven't had the right introduction, and because of the image. In today's world, the lovely words "opera" and "symphony" are redolent with snobbery. As I know too well, liking the music is seen as a bit eccentric, if not geriatric, pretentious, and politically reactionary: a bit like wearing furs or an ascot as a twentysomething.

I hope we can get past that. Classical music is old, but it isn't for old men. The music survived because it is some of the best work humans have done in four centuries. For the thrill of a late-Beethoven trill, it's worth getting past the admittedly stuffy, stagey conventions. Besides: the post-modern mind has a genius for stripping things—whether mutton-chops or sitars or kheffiyehs—from their context. It's time Bach, author of the most face-melting harpsichord riffs known to man, came in for his turn.

Carlson's post kicks off a series he's writing to introduce his fellow twentysomethings to the joys of classical music -- without the baggage. I'm looking forward to it, and so should you. Whether your a full-blown classical music nerd like myself or just a casual listener, there's a lot to gain by looking afresh at the assumptions underlying your listening habits.

And he's right -- classical music isn't just for old men. Heck, it's not even just for men.

Friday, June 4, 2010

War and Peace 4 June 2010

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the evacuation of the Allied Forces from Dunkirk in World War II, after the Allies were defeated by Germany. Winston Churchill called the evacuation operation the "miracle of deliverance."

And Sunday, the 6th June, is the 66th anniversary of D-Day, the return and landing four years later of some 160,000 Allied troops in Normandy to liberate war-occupied Europe.

WWII anniversaries are always particularly poignant for me, perhaps because my father fought in the War in the South Pacific. And so to commemorate these anniversaries and Memorial Day this past week, I will be playing Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, op. 66, on Classical Sunrise on Sunday the 6th (from 6 am to 9 am).

I'll be playing a digital release of the original 1963 recording featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, with the composer conducting, and three soloists whom Britten specifically had in mind when he composed the piece: Peter Pears, Galina Vishievskaya, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, representing threee of the nations deeply affected by the War (Great Britain, the then-Soviet Union, and Germany).

The recording remains unsurpassed.

Please join me on Sunday.
- Deborah Murray

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Schumann Bicentennial

June 8 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann, one of the more colorful (and perhaps tortured) of the major composers. It's an excellent opportunity to reexamine his music, and perhaps rediscover some of it as well.

Schumann's life was not easy. Although something of a piano virtuoso, he ruined his concert career early on by trying to stretch his hands with a mechanical apparatus (it damaged them instead). Schumann was in love with Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher. Overcoming the father's objections (who thought Clara could do much better), they were married. Clara was an accomplished pianist (and composer) and championed her husband's music at every turn.

Schumann obtained a promising post in Dusseldorf leading their orchestra, but proved to be an ineffectual conductor. Shortly after that, his mental state (never very robust), began to deteriorate. He heard voices, he suffered from tinnitus, hallucinated, and became suicidal. He spent his last two years in an insane asylum, dying at the age of 46.

But he also wrote great music. His intimate understanding of the instrument make his piano works a mainstay of the solo repertoire. His poetic sensibilities and melodic gift make his lieder mainstays of the solo vocal repertoire. Although his chamber music and symphonic works weren't well-received at the time, they too have found a place in the repertoire.

Here's a suggestion: if you only know Schumann's piano works, listen to one of his symphonies. If you only know his symphonies, sample some lieder. If you're really into lieder, give his solo piano works a try. In other words, move beyond what you know. It will be worth the effort, and a great way to mark Schumann's bicentennial.

(And if you're a Twitter user, you can share your Schumann exploration by using the hashtag #SchumannADay in your tweets)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Living Composer A Day

I promise to blog about other subject than Twitter, but a recent thread has some relevance with what we're trying to do here at WTJU.

A group of classically-minded Twitters started a thematic listening group, with the theme changing monthly. The idea is to listen to at least one work that follows the theme each day of the month (or at least, the weekdays). In May, this ever-growing group of participants agreed to listen to music by a living composer every day.

Now think on that for a moment. Could you participate in such a activity? How many living composers do you know? How much music by living composers is in your collection?

Of course, some names might spring readily to mind, such as John Adams and Philip Glass. And if you live near a music school (as we do here in Charlottesville), some local composers may get added to your list (Judith Shatin and Walter Ross are on mine). But how many more could you name? Enough to listen to a different living composer every day?

Not to worry. Twitter is indeed a social medium, and like any good conversation, so you can get as well as give information. Part of the fun with this daily challenge is sharing what you're listening to, and another part is discovering new music through the suggestions of others. 

Here's a partial list of what the #livingcomposeraday folks have enjoyed this month. How many are new to you?

Veljo Tormis: Raua needmine
George Benjamin: Sudden Time
Javier Alvarez: Metro Chabacano
Hans Werner Henze: Der Prinze von Homburg
David Lang: Cheating, Lying, Stealing
Peter Ablinger: Ohne Titel
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Before the Icons
Henri Dutilleux: Oboe Sonata
John Tavener: Protecting Veil

What composers would you suggest? What works by those composers?

We try to present a wide variety of contemporary classical music here at WTJU, but the discussion around #livingcomposeraday shows that there's much more out there to discover.

If you'd like to participate in the composer a day challenge and discussion, simply make sure to include the hashtag #livingcomposeraday (no spaces) in your tweet. You can also search the thread either in Twitter, or by using or other search engines by using the hashtag as a search term.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Engaging Fanfares from Toronto

New media, new rules of engagement -- or rather, new opportunities for engagement. The Toronto Luminato Festival of the Arts did just that recently when they invited the world to help shape their event.

The Luminato Festival turns the streets of Toronto into a massive celebration of the arts in all its diversity -- music, film, drama, dance, art, literature, design and more. As their website states "Luminato embraces three key programming principles: collaboration, accessibility, and diversity."

They employed those principles to select a fanfare for the event. Composers could submit videos of groups playing their original fanfares for consideration. The top three submissions were put to a vote. The fanfares were posted on YouTube as well as embedded in the Luminato site. Visitors voted and the fanfare chosen through ballot. You didn't have to be a member of Luminato to vote, or a Canadian citizen, or anything.

The fanfare was chosen through collaboration with the Internet audience, and made accessible through the same. Now that's staying true to your principles!

It not only presented three new compositions to the world, but also let the world respond to them. Now that's an exciting concept. Below are the three finalists, the bottommost is the winning composition, the Majestic Fanfare in E-flat major, by Robert Johnson.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

#Operaplot 2010: The Denouement

When I blogged about the #Operaplot Twitter competition last week, I promised an update with a list of winners and how my entry fared. Music critic Marcia Adair hosts a yearly competition on Twitter, where the challange is to sum up an opera in 140 characters or less.

As always, many people responded with clever and creative entries. Five winners were chosen,and from that one -- Sam Neuman -- was selected at random to receive the top prize -- Two tickets to Dublin's Opera Theatre Company production of The Marriage of Figaro, along with  flights and lodging for three nights.

Here's his entry. See if you can guess the opera:

Father is less than enthusiastic about son’s love affair with aging, bankrupt, terminally ill prostitute. Can you believe it?

So how did I do? Better than I thought. I was one of the three runners up, for which I'll be receiving -- courtesy of Decca -- a 44 CD set of Mozart's complete operas.  Next to the honor of placing "in the money," though, the greatest thrill for me was a mention in Anne Midgette's the Classical Beat.

It's been a great week!

Be sure to check out all the winning entries at the Omniscient Mussel

Friday, May 7, 2010

In Memoriam: Giulietta Simionato

The great Italian mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato died May 5 in Rome, just a week short of attaining the age of 100. She had a long and distinguished career singing more than 50 roles in the great opera houses of the world. She sang the great Verdi mezzo roles, but she was most comfortable perhaps in the bel canto operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.

She was a diminutive woman, but she was a capable actress as well. The term "singing actress" usually makes opera singers cringe, since it connotes more acting skill than vocal distinction, but in Simionato's case it was simply a statement of fact. She was a fine actress, but she also possessed a powerful mezzo voice with a particularly warm and vibrant lower register. She was admired by colleagues on the stage and by the great conductors of her day, including Tulio Serafin, Arturo Toscanini, and Herbert von Karajan, to name just a few.

In Simionato's day and before, the opera stage, particularly the Italian repertoire, was dominated by Italian singers. The roster of singers of that time included such names as Del Monaco, Stignani, Bergonzi, Siepi, Caniglia, and so many more. Today's opera world is more international, but at the same time the wellspring of distinguished Italian singers is much diminished. Simionato, who grew up in poverty, began singing to make a living. She was disciplined and hard-working, because she had no other choice. Fortunately she was also blessed with the makings of a superb singing voice. Together with excellent technique and her fine acting skills, she made a great career for herself on the stage.

Today, young Italians do not see the opera stage as a way out of poverty. Fewer young Italians attend church regularly, hence fewer learn to sing in church. Maybe the way out for poor young Italians is football or, for the lucky few, higher education. With Tebaldi, Corelli, and the others of her generation gone, Simionato's death spells the end of an era of full-voiced, full-blooded Italian singing.

Ann Shaffer will feature a tribute to Ms. Simionato on her show, A Time For Singing, 7 P.M., Tuesday, May 11, 2010, on WTJU, 91.1 F.M.

Giuletta Simionato sings Una voce poco fa from Rossini's "Il barbiere di Siviglia"

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The #Operaplot Thickens...

Are you part of the population who Twitters? According to statistics, you're probably not.* If you enjoy classical music, that's too bad, because there's a lot of musicians, composers, critics, professors, recording engineers, and enthusiasts who carry on a lively conversation about all aspects of classical music 140 characters at a time.

One of the things you missed was the #Operaplot contest. It's put on by Marcia Adair, a Canadian music writer known as the Omniscient Mussel (bonus points if you know which opera features that character).

The contest: sum up an opera in 140 characters or less -- actually less, because in order for your tweet to count, it must include the hashtag #operaplot (a hashtag is like a keyword -- it helps sort things quickly). The challenge was two-fold: tweeters had to come up with clever and innovative ways of summing up an opera, and readers had to figure out which opera was being summed up.

Like this one from Amndw2

Signora Floria. In the dining room. With the steak knife.

For a few days tweets were flying fast and furious, all compiled by Miss Mussel on her website. Brian Rosen was inspired to create a 30-second rap based on his entry. Especially funny if you're familiar with both Stravinsky and Vanilla Ice.

Oedipus Rex
Ego Rex,yo! With my mad flow. Tiresias be hatin on my bling tho. Cuz I’m the king, aint no other. Is my ho fly? Word to my mother!

The 2009 competition had a remarkable twist ending. It was won by Stephen Llewellyn for his summation of the Ring Cycle:

The Ring Cycle
There was a young lady called Fricka Who…who…*snore* Wake up and it’s over. It’s good, I just wish it were quicka.

Llewellyn donated his prize to a music teacher, and so because of this 140-character competition, Priscilla Barrow, a music teacher from Washington, DC received two premier seats to the Washington National Opera production of Turandot and attended the gala Washington Opera Ball held at the German ambassador's Residence in D.C.

Did I enter this year? Of course! Here's my entry:

Greek musician goes to hell and back. Wife only makes it halfway.

Will I win? Probably not. But I'll let you know once the winners are announced.

(*) If you still don't get the whole Twitter thing, I've written a short 5-part series that covers the basics.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Charting a new course away from the charts

There's a big controversy brewing in the UK. BBC Radio 3, which is their classical music channel, will start a weekly Top 20 countdown of the country's top-selling classical releases. The charts will be compiled using both CD sales and downloads, so it will accurately reflect buying trends, but that's not the controversy. The larger question is simply whether or not there's any point to having classical music ape the trappings of popular music in order to attract listeners.

As Rupert Christiansen wrote in his Telegraph article, Radio 3's Classical Top 20 will be very dull indeed,
Why must classical music jump up and down and pretend to be what it isn’t?

What depresses me is the way that classical music is constantly chasing after techniques of the pop sector, and ending up, like a paunchy middle-aged man squeezing himself into a pair of tight blue jeans, looking a bit silly and terminally uncool. The interesting kids I know today with open musical minds aren’t the slightest bit interested in the charts: they have the confidence to listen to what they like and explore without reference to such crude and naff indicators as “the Top 20.”

Why can’t [classical music] stand aside from hype and ephemera and the silly business of judging success by numbers, and instead focus on its deepest strength - feeding a deep and serious appetite for art in which quality isn’t judged by its place in a weekly sales list?
 Well, we agree. And that's why WTJU plays the kind of classical music it does. Granted, for some people it can be tough listening. We don't program our classical music to be an upscale substitute for Muzak -- lots of lush, orchestral music with a smattering of pleasing piano renderings for your background listening pleasure..

I doubt most of what we air would show up on a Top 20 chart, but that's OK. Safe to say all of our announcers have "a deep and serious appetite for art" and program their shows accordingly. Do you have the confidence to listen to what you like and explore outside the tried-and-true? (although we do play a fair amount of that as well)

Well then. Turn your radio dial to 91.1fm, or connect to our Internet feed and let's go!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Organ Concert Old Cabell Hall Thursday 29 April 2010

Have you ever heard the pipe organ in Old Cabell Hall on the grounds of the University?

Are you one of the many fans of organ music who can’t get enough of Widor’s famous Toccata?

Here’s your chance to accomplish both feats in one sitting.

On Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 8pm, the McIntire Department of Music will present organist alumna Ginny Chilton and soprano faculty member Lily Hsieh in a program of music from late 19th- and early 20th-century France.

The featured organ work will be Charles Marie Widor’s Symphony No. 5, concluding with its famous Toccata. Vocal works to be accompanied by Ms. Chilton at the organ will include the “Pie Jesu” from the Fauré Requiem, a little-known Ave Maria by Widor himself, Gounod’s Ave Maria based on Bach’s C-major Prelude, Franck’s La Processione, and other pieces.


Old Cabell Hall on the Central Grounds of the University Virginia boasts one of the earliest organs by famed American builder E. M. Skinner, and one of the few of his organs that survive in original condition and in its original site. The three keyboard (or manuals) instrument was installed in 1906, less than a decade after the construction of Cabell Hall, and was given a thorough renovation by the Thompson-Allen firm of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1983.

Watch this blog for more information about the organ and the man whose name is attached to the McIntire Department of Music, Paul Goodloe McIntire; 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of his birth.

The complete program of the upcoming recital is:


Featuring the  E.M. SKINNER ORGAN (1906)

Thursday, 29 April 2010

8:00 p.m.

Old Cabell Hall Auditorium

Pastorale 1868
  César Franck (1822-1890)

Ave Maria
  J. S. Bach/Charles Gounod (1818-1893)

Ave Maria, Op. 24
  Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937)

Alleluia (Exultate, jubilate)
  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Agnus Dei
  Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Pie Jesu (Requiem, 1877)
  Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

En prière 1890
  Gabriel Fauré

La procession 1888
  César Franck

  Eva dell’Aqua (1856-1930)

Symphonie No. 5 in F Minor 1887
Charles-Marie Widor

Back to Bach Cantatas

Now that the spring rock and folk marathon has concluded, I'll be back this Sunday, 25 April, at 6 am on Classical Sunrise to bring you two Bach sacred cantatas. We'll be hearing cantatas for the Third Sunday after Easter (Jubilate)(25 April) and for the Fourth Sunday after Easter (Cantate)(2 May).
I've chosen BWV 103 for the Third Sunday, Ihr werdet weinen und heulen (You shall weep and lament . . . but the world shall rejoice), and BWV 108 for the Fourth Sunday, Es ist euch gut, das ich hingehe (It is good for you that I go away). Bach composed BWV 103 for Sunday 22 April 1725; BWV 108 was first performed the following Sunday of that same year. Both cantatas are based on text by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler.
The opening chorus in BWV 103 starts out in a sorrowful mood, lamenting the death of Jesus, but then becomes joyful with the promise of salvation. In a similar vein, BWV 108 opens with Jesus Christ explaining why he is leaving but with the promise to send the Holy Spirit.

This community recently had the good fortune to hear Bach's B minor Mass performed. When I asked a friend whether she had attended the performance, she said no, that she did not like "religious" music. I was somewhat taken aback: Bach certainly composed his sacred works for "the glory of God," but in my view the universality and great glory of Bach's music transcends any religion. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Alt-Classical Aston

The interface between popular and classical music always holds the promise of innovation -- a promise not often realized. Brahms wrote waltzes, the popular dance form of the day. Leroy Anderson created short orchestral bonbons that spoke the vernacular of tin pan alley. Gershwin easily moved between the opera house and Broadway, and so on.

A group of music students in Australia bring their classical training (and chops) to the world of pop. And the result (I think) might possibly be considered alt-classical. While covering current Top 40 hits, Aston doesn't simply play a note-for-note recreation. Rather, the original song is merely the starting point.

Aston features an unusual line up that's more in line with a contemporary chamber ensemble rather than a pop group. And that results in a neo-classical sound that's not out of line with contemporary classical music.

So give it a listen. The less familiar you are with the original, the more "classical" this may sound. Alt-classical, indeed.

Here's the original of Lady Gaga's "Telephone" for comparison.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Where's the classical? Well, where's the pledge?

"Where's the classical music?" That's the question that listeners often ask WTJU announcers (and perhaps each other) this time of year. It's gone -- but only temporarily. WTJU features four genres of music in its weekly line-up: classical, jazz, rock, and folk/world music.

Being a community radio station, we're expected to raise the funds to cover approximately half our operating budget from our listeners, which means we hold two fund drives each year. In the fall, the classical and jazz departments take over the station, giving our volunteer announcers to create all kinds of special programs to celebrate these two genres in all their diversity.

In the spring, the rock and folk departments get their turn, and do the same thing. If you've tuned in recently expecting to hear classical music and heard something else, that's the reason. Don't worry -- everything goes back to normal soon. But there's a few things we hope you do during the Spring Rock and Folk Fund-Raising Marathon.

1) If you tune in, stick around. Our rock and folk volunteer DJs are just as knowledgeable about the music they play as our classical and jazz announcers. You can expect top quality programming that really digs into the repertoire regardless of when you tune in. And you might be surprised at what you discover.

2) Whether you stay tuned or not, make a pledge. This station, like many other non-commercial stations, depends on listener support. And the more budgets are tightened from other funding sources (including underwriting), the more important your pledge becomes.

So take a moment and give that person on the air a call. 434-924-3959 is the number, and make a pledge to support your favorite radio station. And don't think in terms of tip-jar amounts, either! Our expenses may be small compared to other stations, but they're not non-existent. If every one of our listeners called in with a $100 pledge, the fund-raising part of the drive would be over before it started (although we'd still do all the great special programs we planned, anyway).

And remember you can also pledge (and listen) online. is the address, and Donate Now the button to click.

Regardless of what your favorite type of music is, please consider pledging. Because your $100 (or larger) contribution helps keep WTJU on the air. So that when this fund drive is over, you can turn on the radio and hear the music you love -- instead of static.

Friday, April 9, 2010

More on Encores

Ralph's comments about encores raise interesting questions. At one time they were almost mandatory, but today half the audience is on the way out the door when an encore is about to be played. In a recent Berlin concert, the Vienna Philharmonic under Loren Maazel after an ecstatically received performance of music by Beethoven, Debussy, and Ravel played as an encore Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody #5, which was a perfect choice. Quite often orchestral encores are often routine, but what could be better than Maazel's recalling a great orchestra's home city?

There was a time when a the public at the opera would demand that a favorite singer encore a particularly showy aria. "Bis! Bis!" would be heard echoing from the rafters after the prima donna or primo uomo completed a show-stopper. Up to the time of Verdi and Wagner, singers would often play fast and loose with the composer's music, so a reprise of a favorite aria by a beloved singer was to be expected. Now the bis is rarely heard in the opera house.

At the Metropolitan Opera last season the fine young lyric tenor Juan Diego Florez let it be known that he might be disposed to reprise "O mes amis" from Donizetti's "La fille du régiment," with its cascade of high Cs. Naturally the audience clamored for it, and he delivered an encore of the aria in style. But that is rare these days. We have taken to heart Toscanini's directive, "Come il scritto!" ("as it's written").

Encores usually are short, popular pieces aimed at sending the audience home happy and with a warm feeling toward the artist. Horowitz rarely would let the audience leave without hearing him play one of his beloved technical showpieces. Few who heard him earlier in his career would ever forget his own fantasy arrangement of "The Stars and Stripes Forever." Encores were intended to reward an audience that received the performer's artistry especially warmly.

Today, when even the dreariest and most routine performance is received with the perfunctory standing ovation, the encore seems to have lost its significance. Still, we concertgoers seem to love encores. The only person in the house who dreads them is the house manager, who is thinking about paying all that overtime!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Encores and the unfiltered expectation

Anne Midgette wrote a piece recently on encores (which itself has been encored throughout the classical music world). In light of the revelation that program notes can get in the way of audience enjoyment, I found one of her observations particularly interesting.

As you may recall, an article in the journal Psychology of Music by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis came to this conclusion:
Results showed a significant negative effect of description, suggesting that prefacing an excerpt with a text description reduces enjoyment of the music. Conceptualizing listening by connecting it to linguistically named correlates (a practice fundamental to music training) may have more multifarious (and not always straightforwardly beneficial) effects on musical experience than commonly assumed.
Now keep in mind as you read Midgette's observation:
Departing from the printed program, [the encore] gets listeners to sit up and take notice, speculating on what’s to come, trying to figure out what they’ve heard. In a way, it puts the audience into a more active role. I’m struck by how many people want to possess the encore, rather than the body of the recital; many people write after a concert to say they want to buy the music they last heard. I think there may be a sense of ownership involved in hearing music without intermediary, working to identify it.
What's your experience with encores? Is it the best part of the concert? Something special? Or does it serve another purpose for you?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

One Thing Leads to Another

I host "Gamut." And at least once every show, I'll say the following:

This is Gamut, the program that each weeks runs the gamut of music from the Middle Ages all the way up to the present. And over the course of X number of shows, we have yet to repeat a work (at least on purpose) and we've yet to run out of great music to share with you.

How is that possible? Simple. Just dig a little beneath the surface.

For example: I'm airing selections from a new recording this morning, "Soviet Russian Viola Music." It's not only providing me with some great music, but also some leads I can explore to find even more.

On this disc are five composers seldom heard these days -- not because of they wrote poor quality music, but rather because Western musicians haven't dug deeply enough into the Russian repertoire.

Vadim Borisovsky
was the founder of the Russian viola school, and many of the works on this new recording are dedicated to him. One of them is by Vladimir Nikolayevich Kryukov, who studied under Myaskovsky and wrote the score for the "Battleship Potemkin. Another is a work by Sergey Nikiforovich Vasilenko, who would later teach Aram Khachaturian (Comedian's Gallop, Spartacus).

Then there's Grigory Samuilvoich Frid, an amazingly prolific composer who broke free from the yoke of Soviet Realism in the 1950's. And Yulian Grigor'yevich Krein and Vlerian Mikhaylovich Bogdanov-Berezovksy, who was a member of the St. Petersburg Union of Composers along with Shostakovich.

All of these men have unique compositional voices, and all produced a significant amount of music that was regularly performed.

It would take years for me to air a significant portion of it. And this is just one small example. Almost every country in Europe and the Americas (as well as quite a few in Asia) have an equally dense and diverse repertoire of native classical music.

So I'm not worried about running out of material. There's plenty still left to discover, and most of it just as good -- if not better -- than what's already been unearthed.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Does Commentary Enhance Enjoyment of Classical Music?

How useful to listeners of classical music are program notes. Do they enhance or inhibit the enjoyment and appreciation of the music? Most live performances of classical music offer program notes, with brief commentary about the artists, composers, and the works to be performed, sometimes with historical context. Some radio announcers who present classical music offer almost no commentary, while others offer commentary of varying lengths and informative quality. Does this commentary enhance the listening experience or merely get in the way?

A recent article in the journal Psychology of Music by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis of the University of Arkansas, suggests that commentary about the music to be performed may interfere with the directness and intimacy with which listeners are able to experience a work. It is as though the listener were experiencing the work through someone else's ears. Her research suggests that listeners enjoy the music more without descriptive commentary that with the commentary. Perhaps non-professional listeners try too hard to identify the elements that they are told are present than simply enjoying the experience as a purely sensory, non-verbal experience. It seems that listeners appreciate learning about the circumstances of a work's composition more than information about the work's structure or content.

Obviously, at a live performance the concertgoer can choose to read or not read the program notes, but the listener is captive to a radio performance. Certain kinds of commentary are virtually indispensable in presenting a radio performance. The plot synopsis of an opera, particularly one in a foreign language, is particularly useful to listeners. But most commentary that precedes radio performances of classical music could be eliminated with little or no loss of enjoyment for listeners. Very few listeners care in the least about the harmonic scheme of the Eroica Symphony, but many would find it interesting that legend has it that Beethoven furiously struck out his dedication to Napoleon when Bonaparte assumed the imperial crown. That kind of comment places the work in historical context, tells us something about Beethoven's political views, and gives some insight into the frequently used caption for the Third Symphony.

Especially when a radio announcer is obliged to attend to other kinds of business on the air, probably the less commentary about the programmed piece, the better. As in so many aspects of life, less is usually more.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Picturing Music

Renaud Hallee is a talented video animator and composer based in Montreal. He combines both those skills in this video. And while there have been many wedding of animated images with music, the abstract nature of Bar's graphics illustrates the work at a deeper level than a more literal approach could.

As you watch the video, pay close attention to the details. Like most classical music, each element serves more than one function. Everyone pictures music differently, but in this video Hallee manages to share his vision of his sound.

Friday, March 19, 2010

JS Bach's 325th Birthday on Sunday, 21 March 2010

This Sunday, 21 March 2010 marks the 325th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, who, in my opinion, is the greatest composer of all time. We will be celebrating this anniversary on Classical Sunrise on Sunday from 6 to 9 am with an all-Bach program.

Starting at 6 am (EDT), I will be playing the great Mass in B minor, which was completed in his last years, around 1748-1749. His plans regarding the mass started much earlier with the layout of the Kyrie-Gloria Mass of 1733, when he thought of composing a complete setting of the mass.

Many parts of the Mass in B minor are drawn from earlier works, including the Sanctus, which was orginally written for Christmas 1724; the Osanna, which was derived from a secular cantata movement from 1732; and the Agnus Dei, derived from a cantata movement from 1725. The B minor mass represents the pinnacle and summation of Bach's vocal works.

Among other works of Bach that we will hear on Sunday, I will also play the Cantata BWV 69, Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele (Praise the Lord, O my Soul), written for the election of a new Town Council in Leipzig. This work also borrowed in part from another cantata.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Classical Music from the Emerald Isle

If you think Irish music is just "Danny Boy" and/or Celtic Women, read on. Ireland has a rich classical music tradition, and a wealth of composers who have made great contributions to the classical repertoire.

Here's a quick run-down of a few -- some familiar, some perhaps not. But this is rundown of the some of the music I'll be featuring on my St. Patrick's Day special edition of "Gamut."

Irish Liber Hymnorium - Just as Irish monasteries became the repository for books during the Middle Ages, they were also the repository of music. The Liber Hymnorium is an 11th Century collection of Irish hymns preserved for posterity.

John Dowland -This master lutenist and Elizabethan composer not only set the standard for playing and writing for the lute, but may have also been a secret agent as well!

Turlough Carolan - Carolan (sometimes O'Carolan) was a blind itinerant harpist who wandered throughout Ireland in the early 1700's. In his journeys, he collected a great many folk songs that he recrafted for his own compositions. Carolan is said to have been influenced by the Concerto Grossi of Francesco Geminiani, an Italian composer who eventually settled in Dublin, and wrote in the style of Corelli (how's that for a classical connection?). Carolan's works form the core repertoire for traditional Irish music, as well as providing a rich source of inspiration for later generations of classical composers.

John Field - Virtuoso pianist and composer John Field was one of the many "Wild Geese" who left Ireland to seek his fortune. He spent most of his professional life touring Eastern Europe, especially Russia. He was friends with Carl Czerny and Franz Liszt. Field created the piano nocturne. Field's nocturnes inspired Chopin to write some as well.

Charles Villiers Stanford - Stanford used Irish melodies often as the basis for his works. His clarinet concerto is still often performed. This early 20th Century composer taught at the Royal College of Music, and counted Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Frank Bridge, and Herbert Howells among his pupils.

Hamilton Harty - This Irish composer and conductor wrote many works either directly quoting Irish melodies, or inspired by Irish subjects. He was well-regarded in the between-war years, and his music is well represented on recordings.

Howard Ferguson - Ferguson studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams, and although he wrote relatively few compositions, they're all uniformly finely-crafted works in the second English renaissance style.

Arthur Sullivan - Although considered a quintessentially English composer, is of Irish descent. And if everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day, then surely Sullivan would qualify...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reflections on the Mariinsky

The Mariinsky Opera of St. Petersburg (sometimes referred to by its Soviet-era name, the Kirov Opera) recently completely its nearly annual residency at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The featured presentation was the company's joint production with the Metropolitan Opera of Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace, inspired by Tolstoy's novel of the same title.

Like the novel, the opera is a vast, sprawling work. Unlike the novel, however, the opera was composed during World War II when the Soviet Union was fighting for its life. Consequently, during Act II of the two-act opera there is explicit invocation of Great Russian nationalism and a more veiled reference to the inspired leadership of Comrade Stalin. As artists working in the oppressive atmosphere of Stalinism learned at the risk of their lives, politics was never far removed from art.

Although the production and performances both in Washington and earlier in New York were rightly praised generally by the critics, more than one critic made reference to "provincialism" in connection with the Mariinsky's performance. The conducting of the Mariinsky's general director, Valery Gergiev, is acclaimed worldwide (he is also associate music director of the Metropolitan Opera), and the Mariinsky has nurtured a number of artists who have gone on to international careers (Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky come immediately to mind), but the label still rankles. The same claim of "provincialism" was leveled at Sviatoslav Richter, one of the 20th Century's greatest pianists, when he made his first appearances in the West in the early 1960s.

Certainly during the Soviet period and even more recently, Russian artists tended to receive their training exclusively or at least primarily in Russia. Political considerations made it difficult for Soviet artists to tour in the West, so they tended to evolve performance practices and techniques not commonly heard outside Russia. Artists such as Richter, Gilels, Vishnevskaya, Reizen, and Oistrakh had a uniquely "Russian" sound, especially in the music of Russian composers. The Mariinsky Opera Orchestra, while one of the world's finest, still has a craggy, even rough-hewn quality that contrasts with the smooth sophistication of such orchestras as the Met's, the Berlin Philharmonic, or the London Symphony Orchestra (where Gergiev frequently conducts).

One of the down sides of today's international travel and universal availability of recordings is that many performers exhibit a bland perfection that leaches out individuality from their performances. It is this colorless internationalism that the critics contrast with the "provincialism" of some non-Western performers, such as Richter or the Mariinsky under Gergiev.

Performing artists today, especially of the younger generation, are exceptionally well-trained and often blessed with flawless technique. Yet in the process of attaining that technical prowess we have lost the individuality, be it provincial or otherwise, that still informs the recorded performances of great artists like Oistrakh, Gilels, or Rostropovich. Perhaps that is one reason some listeners are attracted to the astringent, disembodied, often lifeless performances on "original instruments." I say, "Bring back the provincials."