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Preview: Café Concerts

Café Concerts

Café Concerts

Last Build Date: Sat, 03 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400


In-Studio: Matt Herskowitz Trio with Philippe Quint Bring Jazz to Bach

Sat, 03 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400

Bach has long proved irresistible to artists drawn to reimagining his music through a contemporary prism. Mahler and Busoni transcribed his works, and Leopold Stokowski orchestrated them. More recently, Bach has been arranged for banjo, accordion, jazz trumpet, string quartet, and even theremin.

The pianist Matt Herskowitz – no stranger to straddling the borders between jazz, classical and global styles – recently came to WQXR to present three of his jazz-inflected arrangements of Bach's work. Joining him were his Trio, plus two violinists from the classical world: Philippe Quint and Lara St. John. The set started with a ballad-like rendition of the Prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1.
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Quint, Herskowitz and the trio (featuring bassist Mat Fieldes and drummer David Rozenblatt) have joined forces for a recording called Bach XXI, featuring the pianist's arrangements of eight Bach favorites. Speaking with host Terrance McKnight, Herskowitz said that Bach's music is particularly adaptable to jazz because of its formal construction. "Bach's got one idea and builds upon that," said Herskowitz. "He doesn't just abandon an idea and go to something else. This makes it very fertile ground for arranging."

While Herskowitz has explored Bach in various settings over the years (including an arrangement from the Well-Tempered Clavier for the film "The Triplets of Belleville"), Quint admits that he is a relative newcomer to jazz. His childhood in the Soviet Union, he says, was "unbelievably conservative and strictly classical, where improvisation was not part of the vocabulary." But upon moving to the U.S. in 1991, he bought his first CD, a recording of John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things." After more than two decades of playing as a soloist with orchestras and in recitals, he decided it was time to revisit his love of swing.

"I like to be outside of my comfort zone," said Quint, laughing. "Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it's a disaster." Below is the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.
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Joining the musicians in the final piece was the violinist Lara St. John. She has devoted much of her career to the partitas, sonatas and concertos of Bach (going back to her 1996 debut album). But she grew up in Canada listening to Celtic music, tango, old-time fiddling and Stéphane Grappelli albums (her next recording, playfully called "Shiksa," contains music from the Jewish Diaspora).

"Philippe and I are like yin and yang," she said. "He comes from a very straight-laced conservative background and I'm basically renegade, D.I.Y. background. So I've never been inside a box so I don't know what the outside is." The two violinists find common ground in Herskowitz's freewheeling arrangement of Bach's Double Concerto. Watch the performance below and listen to the full session at the top of this page.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Irene Trudel; Interview: Terrance McKnight; Text & Production: Brian Wise

In-Studio: Alina Ibragimova Performs Bach and Ysaÿe

Mon, 17 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400

The Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova in recent years has developed a following in Europe, especially in the U.K., where she studied and came of age. She appears poised to have a bigger following in New York, too, after her recent performances at the Mostly Mozart Festival and in the studio at WQXR. She came to the WQXR performance studio to present two pieces, starting with Eugène Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 3. Watch the video below and listen to the full segment at the top of this page.

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This past June, Ibragimova, 29, released a recording of Ysaÿe's six violin sonatas, known as some of the most treacherous solo works in the repertoire. They are portraits, of a sort, of six violinists whom the composer knew in the 1920s: Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, Georges Enescu, Fritz Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom and Manual Quiroga. "You hear the personalities," said Ibragimova. "They feel like proper little dedications."

Ibragimova arrived at the station early one August morning after having performed a late-night (10 pm) recital at Lincoln Center's Kaplan Penthouse—one of at least two such performances this summer, another being at London's Royal Albert Hall in July. The violinist believes the late shift helps put audiences in a more contemplative mindset for listening. "I think the atmosphere changes for the time of day," she said. "People listen differently."

For her second performance, Ibragimova offered the Largo from J.S. Bach's Solo Violin Sonata No. 3.
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Ibragimova's still-young career is notable for the sheer breadth of her repertoire interests. She has also formed an all-female string quartet called Chiaroscuro that uses period instruments, though she herself opts for an unorthodox approach to equipment, changing strings, pitch and bows on her (comparably modern) 1780 Anselmo Bellosio violin. "Whilst it works, I find it's not ideal," she said. "Now I'm going to try a different violin to use with the quartet just so I don't have to put my violin through this all the time."

When she isn't touring, Ibragimova lives in Greenwich, England with her husband, the Guardian music critic Tom Service. The couple married in the spring, having first met when he interviewed her. She says it isn't difficult having a critic around who is constantly evaluating music. And there are perks: "There are so many books now at home. It's great. He knows all the opus numbers."

Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Irene Trudel; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon; Text & Production: Brian Wise

In-Studio: Alina Ibragimova Performs Bach and Ysaÿe

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In-Studio: Ignat Solzhenitsyn and Hsin-Yun Huang Play Soviet-Era Sonatas

Tue, 05 May 2015 11:04:22 -0400

If your name is Solzhenitsyn and your concert program is devoted to the music of Soviet Russia, questions inevitably arise about the meaning of your repertoire choices. Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the pianist, conductor and son of Russia's Nobel Prize-winning writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, came to WQXR recently with the violist Hsin-Yun Huang, to perform Soviet-era sonatas by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. When asked whether the program was intended as a commentary on modern-day Russia, given its widely-reported curbs on press and artistic freedom, Solzhenitsyn spoke carefully but emphatically. "Music this great always transcends the bounds of its time and place of creation," he said. "During the Cold War, there was no doubt in my mind that the only real bridge between America and the Soviet Union was culture. To the extent that today unfortunately gives us a whiff of that time, music is the best way to remind what holds us together." Solzhenitsyn knows a lot about the dreadful history of the 20th century through the tribulations of his late father, who spent eight years in Soviet labor camps after World War II. He grew up in Vermont when his father moved there with his family in 1976, after being exiled from the Soviet Union. He has built a career as both a pianist and conductor, and is currently principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Huang, who organized this program (it was repeated days later at SubCulture), grew up in Taiwan and England, and is now a viola professor at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music. The pair began with the second movement of Shostakovich's Viola Sonata, a work completed just weeks before his death in 1975. width="620" height="349" src="" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" id="a3429218381511503323" class="youtube_video" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" data-original-url=""> Huang observes that Shostakovich, like Brahms, who wrote two works for viola near the end of his life, was particularly drawn to the "humanity" of her instrument. "There is something to the humanity of being from within [the orchestra texture]," she noted. "You can lead from within but you don't have to draw attention to yourself. There's that aspect of the personality of the instrument that I feel I identify with very much." In this clip, Solzhenitsyn speaks further about the "big questions" asked by Shostakovich, who suffered from the personal persecution of Stalin: Huang and Solzhenitsyn met some 25 years ago, then teenaged students at the Marlboro Music Festival, and they have kept up their friendship and occasional musical partnership since. Both now wear multiple hats in their careers, with Solzhenitsyn also actively promoting the legacy of his father (who died in 2008), through readings, publishing and translations of his work. In the below video, he performs the second movement of Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 8 (1944). "It's a work that is very scary – with a capital "s" – in its outer movements," the pianist said. "But this middle movement to me seems unrelated. To me it's kind of a respite from the terror of war but one that does not result in any succor, in any amelioration, in any resolution. It's just the sweet memory that is gone no sooner than it's spoken." Video: Amy Pearl (camera) & Kim Nowacki (editing); Audio: Irene Trudel; Production & Interview: Brian Wise [...]

In-Studio: Matt Haimovitz & Christopher O'Riley Play Beethoven & Rachmaninoff

Wed, 15 Apr 2015 14:00:00 -0400

The cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O'Riley are quick to emphasize that their recent venture into Baroque period instruments isn't some fusty or antiquated pursuit. The duo's new album, "Beethoven, Period," was recorded at Skywalker Ranch, film director George Lucas's famous studio complex in Northern California. Instead of sheet music they played from iPads. Their Seattle launch concert took place at the Tractor Tavern, a rock club.

The experience with very old instruments also forced them to rethink their approach to Beethoven's music. "All of the sudden, the relation between the cello and the piano is completely different," Haimovitz tells host Elliott Forrest. "No longer am I trying to project over the grandeur of a Steinway grand but I'm actually having to make room for the piano."

"You have a lot more leeway in terms of expressivity and color, even in the sense of one note having a shape to it," added O'Riley.

The album features Beethoven's complete works for cello and keyboard, with O'Riley playing on a fortepiano made in 1823 and Haimovitz outfitting his 1710 Goffriller cello with ox-gut strings, a rosewood tailpiece and a period bow.

The duo's performance in the WQXR studio marked a return to (mostly) modern equipment – with a 1940's Steinway and a modern cello bow – but two movements from the Opus 102 No. 2 sonata had a lightness and transparency that suggested time diligently spent in the period-instrument camp.
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As Haimovitz notes, the Opus 102 sonatas "offer a window into Beethoven's late period where he's deconstructing all of the ideas of the enlightenment and what he inherited from Haydn and Mozart and really finding his own voice complete." Below is the third movement.
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O'Riley and Haimovitz have previously collaborated on "Shuffle. Play. Listen" (2012), an album of pieces by classical composers (Stravinsky, Janacek, Martinu) along pop acts (Radiohead, Cocteau Twins, Arcade Fire), among others. Both artists have sought to blur the lines between pop and classical over the past decade or more – since Haimovitz began playing Bach in bars and clubs in 2002 and O'Riley started arranging arty rock songs around the same time.

Together the duo is planning a future project of pop songs given classical reworkings by contemporary composers. According to O'Riley, it will include John Corigliano's resettings of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell songs; Philip Glass arranging the Velvet Underground; and Gunther Schuller taking on the band Guided by Voices. A recording is expected to be out this fall.

Haimovitz and O'Riley also don't shy away from lush, romantic works as well, as their final performance in the WQXR studio demonstrates: the Andante from Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata, Op. 19. Watch that below and listen to the full segment at the top of this page.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Sound: Irene Trudel; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Elliott Forrest

In-Studio: Matt Haimovitz & Christopher O'Riley Play Beethoven & Rachmaninoff

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In-Studio: Kirill Gerstein Plays Liszt's Transcendental Etude No. 12

Fri, 13 Mar 2015 09:37:58 -0400

For most pianists, the day after a major recital typically means rest, relaxation and perhaps, a plane flight. For Kirill Gerstein, it meant Liszt's dauntingly complex Transcendental Etude No. 12

The post-performance adrenalin rush after a substantial recital at Zankel Hall had barely subsided when Gerstein appeared at WQXR. The Russian-born pianist spoke about his new recording of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev concertos, and gave this performance as the cameras were rolling.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Irene Trudel; Production: Brian Wise

The Jake Schepps Quintet's Classical Hoedown

Wed, 25 Feb 2015 00:00:00 -0500

Blame it on Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring or perhaps the ridiculous virtuosity that is characteristic of so much bluegrass playing. In the past decade, growing numbers of classical musicians have been mixing it up with fiddlers, banjo players and mandolin pluckers. Yo-Yo Ma has worked with bluegrass players in the Goat Rodeo Sessions; mandolin wizard Chris Thile has played his own concerto with several American orchestras and released an album of Bach partitas. The latest group to explore this hybrid is the Jake Schepps Quintet, a string band whose members are steeped in bluegrass spontaneity but whose repertoire – yes, repertoire – is by composers from the modern classical tradition. They include Matt McBane, Marc Mellits, Gyan Riley, and Matt Flinner. Led by Schepps, a Colorado-based banjoist, the group came to WQXR to play three pieces from "Entwined," their debut album. "Most of the instruments in the string band aren't foreign" to classical composers, said Schepps, in an interview with host Terrance McKnight. "Most classical composers have written for violin, guitar, and bass, and a mandolin is tuned like a violin so it's familiar territory." The quintet's set began with Flatiron VII: Planetary Tuners by Mellits, a Chicago-based composer whose works have been performed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, among other groups. width="620" height="349" src="" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" id="a4351156268077886032" class="youtube_video" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" data-original-url=""> Schepps has been at the forefront of melding bluegrass with other genres for several years. He previously recorded an album of Béla Bartok's music arranged for a string band, "An Evening In The Village," and says he wants to play the music of Henry Purcell for a future project. "I fell in love with his three and four-part fantasias," he said. "I love Baroque music and Bach. I'm always curious for places that I can take string band instruments into new terrain." Schepps added that it's a "lateral step" to transfer pieces from Purcell's viola da gambas to the five-string banjo. The quintet's next selection is the album's title track, by Matt McBane, a Brooklyn violinist and composer who directs the Carlsbad Music Festival in California and whose music has been played by a number of new-music groups. width="620" height="349" src="" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" id="a3738139559899403271" class="youtube_video" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" data-original-url=""> Flinner, who plays mandolin in the quintet, composed the last selection in the set, called Migrations. He tells McKnight that his challenge "was trying, as a bluegrass musician, to write across that line in a long-form manner. Classical music goes so many different directions these days. One thing that we could use more of is more American roots elements added to that. Bluegrass is a uniquely American art form. It feels like it's getting more respect." Schepps added: "My hope is that a classical audience will come to find something interesting about bluegrass." Listen to the full interview and performances at the top of this page. Jake Schepps Quintet Personnel: Jake Schepps: five-string banjoMatt Flinner: mandolinRyan Drickey: violinJordan Tice: acoustic guitarAndrew Small: double bass Videos: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Irene Trudel; Production: Brian Wise; Intervi[...]

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Café Concert: The Demenga Brothers and Luka Juhart

Tue, 06 Jan 2015 11:22:37 -0500

Successful sibling duos in music are rare. The stress of rehearsing and being constantly on the road together can derail the happiest collaboration. The best-known sibling partnership in musical history – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his sister Nannerl – didn't last long. He went off to Paris, Vienna and Prague; Nannerl settled down into marriage. The Swiss cellists Thomas and Patrick Demenga appear to take their collaboration with a more easy-going attitude. Some 35 years since graduating from Juilliard and the Bern Conservatory, respectively, they are still going strong, and performed together in December at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. "We can go on stage and close our eyes and start without even looking at each other," Patrick Demenga told host Jeff Spurgeon. "We are so close in a way musically that we trust – it's one of the most exciting experiences that you can have on stage." The two cellists, who also have active solo careers, came to the WQXR Café to perform as both a duo and as a trio with the Slovenian accordionist Luka Juhart. Their program combined the music of Bach with two modern works. First up was a transcription of Bach's Sonata in G minor for Gamba and Harpsichord (first movement), with Juhart playing the harpsichord part. "Normally if you play with harpsichord and continuo," said Thomas Demenga, "you have a very thin sound and you have to be very careful as a cellist not to overpower the harpsichord. In this combination with accordion you have a really full range because he can sustain the lines so you have the full polyphony." width="620" height="349" src="" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" id="a6217706426397997472" class="youtube_video" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" data-original-url="">  Juhart met the Demenga brothers through a composer friend, which led to some festival dates in Europe. At an appearance in Austria last year, David Finckel, the artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, heard the trio and booked them on his series. Although the accordion is a relative outsider in U.S. chamber music circles, Juhart estimates that there are 30 or 40 college-level training programs in Europe where one can major in the instrument (he teaches at the academy in Ljubljana, Slovenia). Below, Juhart performs Vinko Globokar’s theatrical solo piece, Dialog über Luft. width="620" height="349" src="" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" id="a3282544707139248304" class="youtube_video" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" data-original-url="">While Juhart has sought to explore the outer boundaries of the modernist accordion sound, he has also taken up Baroque works by Rameau, Handel, Scarlatti and Frescobaldi. The Demenga brothers, meanwhile, have been equally versatile, as seen in the last work on their program, an excerpt from Thomas Demenga's Solo per due, which features all manner of bowed and plucked techniques. "It's a bit jazzy but not really because I don't like classical musicians who try to play jazz," said Thomas Demenga. He notes that one of his classmates and friends at Juilliard was the violinist Nigel Kennedy, known for a freewheeling forays into popular styles. "We played on the streets [of New York] to make money," Demenga recalls. The two musicians also played frisbee in the halls of Juilliard. "People hated us," he said with a laugh.[...]

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Watch: American Boychoir Presents Songs of the Season

Sat, 13 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0500

The American Boychoir has had an eventful 2014 that's included an appearance in a Hollywood feature film, a visit to the Toronto Film Festival and a December East Coast tour that has the group singing Christmas music in seven different languages. Eleven members of the choir, led by music director Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, visited the WQXR studios early this month to present a selection of carols and songs. The ensemble began with "Mary Had a Baby" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." width="620" height="349" src="" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" id="a8931166298436591803" class="youtube_video" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" data-original-url=""> Based in Plainsboro, NJ, the American Boychoir is one of two accredited boychoir boarding schools the United States, the other being the Saint Thomas Choir School in Manhattan. The group, which marked its 75th anniversary last year, is characterized by a unique sound and facility in a wide range of styles. Specifically, unlike the famous Vienna Boychoir, on which it was originally patterned, the American Boychoir uses so-called voices-in-transition. "That's what distinguishes us from almost any other boychoir in the world," said Malvar-Ruiz. "It's the fact that we have changing voices still singing with us. It's adding that new color that makes our sound so unique." This allows the ensemble to fill out SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) choral arrangements (and beyond), as we hear below in these performances. But as 12-year-old chorister Douglas Butler explains, the choir's sound is also the product of hard work, with a school day that stretches from 8 am to 6 pm. "We've tacked an extra three hours at the end of every day for a rehearsal," he says. "We have to learn a lot of music and a lot of times we have to do it quickly" – and by memory. Below: Bach's Domine Deus: width="620" height="349" src="" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" id="a-4246111540254925623" class="youtube_video" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" data-original-url=""> The American Boychoir is the centerpiece of a forthcoming film called "Boychoir." Directed by Academy Award-winning film director Francois Girard, it stars Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates in a feel-good tale about a troubled boy from Texas who attends the American Boychoir School. Due for national release in 2015, it garnered raves at its Sept. 6 premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. "We did three weeks of filming and a few more weeks of recording the soundtrack," said Malvar-Ruiz. The film was shot at Connecticut’s Fairfield University and in New York, but the American Boychoir School's uniforms, logo and identity are to be used. This is just the latest Hollywood encounter for a choir whose performances have been featured in numerous films and commercials since its founding in Columbus, Ohio in 1937. The choir has been steeped in holiday music throughout its history – at least since its first appearance in a national television broadcast of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, in 1951. Among its performances this month is an appearance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec. 16. Watch their fourth WQXR performance below and listen to the full segment, with host Terrance McKnight's interview, at the top of this page. Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Irene Trudel; Production & Text[...]

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Café Concert: Mivos Quartet

Tue, 25 Nov 2014 18:00:00 -0500

Bach's austerely beautiful Art of Fugue has long fascinated musicians who have a taste for the modern and esoteric. The piece, left incomplete at the composer's death, reduced complex counterpoint to its bare essentials – so much that the composer didn't even indicate the instrument (or instruments) for which it was composed.

In fact, most scholars agree that Bach probably intended the piece for the harpsichord, but a few string quartets have made their case for the work too. The New York-based Mivos Quartet recently brought the Contrapunctus XIX from The Art of Fugue to the WQXR Café as part of the station's month-long Bachstock festival. In an arrangement by Patrick Higgins, it dramatically calls attention to Bach's advanced sense of time and musical architecture.

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Formed in 2008 at the Manhattan School of Music, the Mivos Quartet has put much of its focus and resources into contemporary string quartet repertoire. But early-vintage works also turn up on their programs.

"Maybe it seems random," says violist Victor Lowrie, "but when there's a program of new music, there's often much older music too – skipping the Classical and Romantic periods." Lowrie adds that, when compared to an exacting living composer, there's a great freedom when it comes to interpreting early music.

Like the famous Arditti Quartet before them, Mivos's members are especially drawn to some of the knottier, more abstruse corners of the contemporary repertoire. Their touring calendar presents a who's-who of avant-garde presenters – from Darmstadt to Roulette and seemingly every modern art museum in between. (The quartet appears at Columbia University's Miller Theater on Dec. 9.) And their programs span established names like Kurtag and Ligeti to relative up-and-comers including Kate Soper and Missy Mazzoli. 

But the Mivos musicians say they're hardly dogmatic about styles or genres. Cellist Mariel Roberts recalled a recent, eye-opening tour in Brazil, where she encountered idioms far removed from American or European traditions (more samba than serialism). It made for an amusing clash of cultures: "On the last night we were there, one composer was like, 'I don't understand why you guys have all of this weird music with no rhythm. In Brazil that's not something you do. Why would you take the soul out of music?'

"I was like 'well, I never thought about it like that.'"

Listen to the full concert above, which also features the fourth movement from Taylor Brook's quartet, El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan (also below), plus commentary from cellist Mariel Roberts and violist Victor Lowrie.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Sound: Edward Haber; Production and Text: Brian Wise

Café Concert: Mivos Quartet

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Café Concert: Dublin Guitar Quartet

Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:00:00 -0400

The four members of the Dublin Guitar Quartet do not specialize in bouncy jigs and reels. Nor do they play in Guinness-soaked pubs. But while the ensemble is certainly connected to its Irish heritage, its repertoire goes further afield, to minimalist and post-minimalist composers including Philip Glass, Arvo Part and Michael Nyman, as well as modern masters like Igor Stravinsky and György Ligeti.

Quartet member Brian Bulger says that the group chose to focus on modern repertoire – frequently in arrangements – as a way to distinguish itself and emphasize its unanimity of sound.

"Guitar quartets traditionally tend to be a collection of soloists," he said. "They sit in a straight line and there would be a lot of virtuosity. We thought it would be a great idea to create a quartet that was the equivalent of a string quartet, sitting in a semi-circle and concentrating on string quartet repertoire and choir repertoire as opposed to the standard repertoire."

The ensemble's Café Concert highlighted this in two pieces by Glass, starting with an arrangement of his String Quartet No. 2, subtitled "Company."

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Earlier this year, the Dublin Guitar Quartet released its latest album, a collection of Glass arrangements, which Q2 Music named an Album of the Week. In his review, Daniel Stephen Johnson praised for its "flawless rhythmic unison and tonal blend makes the four instruments sound like one."

Of course, arranging piano or string quartets for guitar can be a logistical stretch: there are questions of how to adjust to the guitar's range and articulations. The Dubliners perform with three six-string instruments along with an eight-string guitar with an extra high string and an extra low string, all designed by Bert Kwakkle, a Dutch guitar maker.

When it comes to capturing the intricate rhythmic churn of Glass's scores, the guitarists say it simply comes with time and hard work. The group was formed in 2001 at the Dublin Conservatory of Music and Drama, and in recent years, they have toured frequently in North America, Europe and South America. Composers are also writing new works for the ensemble. The guitarists say their next frontier lies in electric guitar quartet repertoire, both through existing pieces like those of the composer Steve Reich, and in a commissioned work by the New York composer Michael Gordon, due to premiere in March 2015.

Watch the quartet's performance of Glass's Quartet No. 3, "Mishima," below.

Video: Amy Pearl/Kim Nowacki; Audio: George Wellington; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon; Text/Production: Brian Wise

Café Concert: Dublin Guitar Quartet

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Café Concert: Pablo Villegas

Fri, 10 Oct 2014 13:38:21 -0400

The classical guitarist Pablo Villegas has made his home in New York City for a decade, but his performances have a strong sense of his roots in La Rioja, a region in the north of Spain celebrated for its complex red wines as well as its earthy, indigenous folk music. That includes the Spanish Jota, a folk dance that is normally played with mandolins and guitars, singers and dancers.

Performing solo, Villegas featured the colorfully virtuosic dance in a Café Concert performance of Tarrega's Gran Jota de Concierto, which featured a variety of strumming and percussive effects.

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Villegas came to WQXR on the cusp of a busy season. He's making debuts this year with seven U.S. orchestras, including the Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Oregon Symphonies. For six of those seven he'll be playing Rodrigo’s soulful and challenging Concierto de Aranjuez. He also has a new album due out in early 2015, called "Americano." But as Villegas stated at several points during his visit, "music is a journey" and for him, it began at age six when he saw the celebrated Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia performing on television.

"I was really touched by it and I told my parents I wanted to learn guitar," he recalled. Villegas's parents enrolled him in a music school and at age seven he gave his first public performance. "Music is a social tool and as a musician I assume the responsibility of connecting to the audience in a way that I can make them feel things that perhaps they've never felt before."

Villegas went on to study in conservatories in Madrid and Weimar, Germany, before becoming "attracted by the multicultural nature of New York." In 2004, he began postgraduate studies with professor David Starobin at the Manhattan School of Music. Villegas paid homage to Segovia in this performance of the Prelude No. 1 by Villa-Lobos, who wrote this piece for the guitar legend.

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Villegas's own career took off after winning the Andrés Segovia Award at age 15. He went on to receive many more prizes, while making debuts with a number of American and European orchestras. Currently, he is a cultural ambassador to the Vivanco Foundation in Spain, which combines a winery and museum of wine culture. "Wine, art – we used the same words to lexicon to express what we are feeling," he noted. "It's about emotions, it's about getting inspired by it."

For this last piece, Tarrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Memories of the Alhambra), Villegas suggests pairing it with a Reserva, a red wine. "It's more calm and mature," he said. "It does go deeper into your emotions."

Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Text and production: Brian Wise; Interview: Naomi Lewin

Café Concert: Pablo Villegas

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Café Concert: Zuill Bailey

Wed, 13 Aug 2014 18:00:00 -0400

VIDEO: Zuill Bailey Plays Selections from Bach's Cello Suite No. 3
"Playing Bach – and I don't jokingly say this – is like public therapy," said the cellist Zuill Bailey, just after finishing several movements from Bach's Cello Suites in the WQXR Café. "You're feeling unbelievable one moment and you're feeling very insecure in the next.

"When you play Bach well, or you feel that it's going well, there is no greater feeling, because it's a completion of your work and your emotions."

If the wavy-haired Bailey seemed to be particularly Zen-like on this steamy July morning, he believes it may have been an after-effect of his recent time in Alaska, where since 2011 he has been the artistic director of the Sitka Summer Music Festival. "Alaska is like Bach," Bailey noted. "It makes you feel grounded and complete. It's oxygen for the soul."

Despite his relaxed manner, Bailey also an exceedingly busy artist with a wide-ranging resume. Among its highlights are nearly three-dozen recordings, from the big standard concertos (Dvorak, Elgar, Tchaikovsky) to an upcoming album pairing Bloch's Schlomo with Nico Muhly's Cello Concerto, of which he gave the U.S. premiere in 2013. The cellist frequently tries to pair well-known works with rarities in an effort to challenge audiences, albeit in modest doses.

Bailey, who is based in El Paso, TX, travels with a 1693 Matteo Gofriller, an instrument formerly owned by Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet. He becomes effusive when describing the cello, which is noticeably large and features a rose carved on top under the fingerboard. "It has a very unique sound," said Bailey. "It's very broad and bass-y and yet has the singing ability to play solo lines up top as well."

In our interview, attention eventually turned to Bailey's most unusual calling-card: his acting stint as a murderous cellist on the HBO prison series "Oz" between 1997 and 2003. Over a decade later, he believes it was important that he set the parameters of his character – who was imprisoned after stabbing a violinist with the endpin of his cello.

"They had me saying really horrible things on the show," Bailey said of the original script. "I said, 'my audience would not understand that this is fake and they would see me as that person. And I can't be that person if I'm playing a performing cellist. So my dialogue was cut down to a bare minimum." Bailey also stipulated that he be able to choose his own music, which included bits of Bach and Paganini.

Does Bailey have any more acting in his future? "I hope not," he said, laughing. "I love the idea of bringing the cello to new audiences but I'm not searching those things out."

Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Naomi Lewin

Café Concert: Zuill Bailey

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Café Concert: Time for Three

Sun, 15 Jun 2014 00:00:00 -0400

Within the last month, the string trio Time for Three has had the unusual distinction of being covered by the Today Show, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, The Strad and yes, WQXR. The reason? Violinists Zachary De Pue and Nicolas Kendall were told they couldn’t take their violins inside the cabin on a US Airways flight from North Carolina to Arkansas.

It was at that point that De Pue began playing J.S. Bach's Partita No. 3 on the tarmac while Kendall, recording the incident on his phone, shows the pair being ignored by various US Airways personnel. The musicians’ video of the incident was posted on YouTube, which quickly set off a social media storm. (US Airways later described it as a misunderstanding of carry-on rules between its employees and the musicians.)

Even as Time For Three came on a wider public's radar (and its Facebook feeds) with the incident, the trio has been active for over a decade, appearing everywhere from symphony halls to jazz clubs to football games and even the Indianapolis 500 auto race. The musicians first met and began jamming together in 1999 while classmates at the Curtis Institute of Music. They got their first formal gig in 2001 and soon the sideline became a more serious pursuit.

“Our common ground is classical music and each one of us brought a different genre to the table,” Double bassist Ranaan Meyer said in an interview with WQXR host Naomi Lewin. Kendall’s interests included gypsy jazz, hip-hop and R&B; De Pue specialized in Texas fiddling and folk music; Meyer played jazz. “What was really unique was we were able to teach each other some of the influences from those other genres, respectively.

In the WQXR Café, the group played two selections for their new, self-titled album on Universal Classics, starting with "Roundabouts," an intimate piece by Kendall that features a round structure.

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Since 2009, Time for Three has been in residency with the Indianapolis Symphony, where De Pue is the concertmaster. The trio's next song, “Banjo Love,” by Meyer, gives a hint of the American fiddling tradition that has become a part of its musical DNA. It also pays homage to the noted banjo player Béla Fleck, who is a musical hero of the group.

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The trio’s final song in the café is a cover version of Coldplay’s "UFO." While it attests to the strong pop influences on Time for Three, the musicians are quick to call attention to their classical credits. Along with appearing at Carnegie Hall and other major venues, they have commissioned high-profile composers including Jennifer Higdon, William Bolcom and Chris Brubeck to write works for the group and are currently developing a new piece with the Portland, OR-based composer Kenji Bunch.

“When people ask us what we are we have no idea,” noted Meyer, laughing. “We're a marketing nightmare for most record companies. The fact that we're actually signed with Universal is a major pat on the back for us. When we're getting together, frankly it's not a purist thing."

Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Naomi Lewin

Café Concert: Time for Three

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Café Concert: Anne Akiko Meyers

Fri, 21 Mar 2014 11:15:15 -0400

Anne Akiko Meyers plays a centuries-old Guarneri del Gesu violin once used by Itzhak Perlman, Henri Vieuxtemps and Yehudi Menuhin, but it doesn’t reveal its beauty easily.

"It definitely doesn’t play itself,” Meyers said. “When you have such a powerful instrument you want to dig in deeper and soak in the juice. But with this instrument, almost less is more. It’s counterintuitive.

“You have to really finesse it in a certain way,” she added, noting how she is learning how to find the sweet spots and bring them out.

The 1741 Guarneri, known as the Vieuxtemps, was sold in 2012 for what was reported to be more than $16 million and its anonymous owner has loaned it to Meyers for life. She recently put the instrument to the test with a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra. Days after the album's release she brought the instrument to the WQXR Café to offer repertoire in a somewhat more unusual vein.

The internationally known Meyers, who is performing this spring with the Chicago Symphony and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, demonstrated its lyrical qualities with an arrangement of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.”

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One of the salient features of the Vieuxtemps is its enormous, rich sound, which Meyers attributes to its excellent state of preservation.

“It doesn’t have one crack on it and it doesn’t even have the normal sound post patch, which almost every violin has,” Meyers explained. “And it’s a muse for so many violin makers and violinists because nobody knows why it’s in such pristine condition. And this condition has helped the sound of the violin just soar.”

For one thing, the wood inside the violin was thicker, owing to the fact that previous owners did not alter it in a (misguided) attempt to draw out a deeper sound. Meyers added that the instrument had been mostly sitting under a bed for the past 50 years and as a result, “Even now, it’s still growing.” A Japanese folk tune arrangement revealed its tone in more virtuosic passagework.

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Certainly, there has been ongoing debate over the relative merits of old and modern violins, and whether Guarneri and Stradivarius models are really better than the new ones. Blind tests have even suggested that experts couldn’t tell the difference between the two. Meyers notes, however, that contemporary makers still look to the centuries-old instruments for inspiration and guidance.

“There was one Monet, there was one Picasso, there was one Guarneri del Gesu," she said. "We try to emulate these incredible makers but they were artists that were transcendent. It’s so important to cherish these instruments as much as we can.”

Below: Meyers introduces and performs the "Star-Spangled Banner."

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Norko Okabe; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon

Café Concert: Anne Akiko Meyers

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Café Concert: Jenny Lin

Wed, 26 Feb 2014 00:00:00 -0500

An upright piano may not seem like the desired tool of a keyboard purist but Jenny Lin needed little rationalization for playing Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite on the upright in the WQXR Café.

Stravinsky himself was said to compose not at a concert grand, but "at a tacky-sounding and usually out-of-tune upright piano that has been muted and dampened with felt,” according to a onetime description by his wife, Vera Stravinsky. What’s more, Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, advocated using uprights in orchestra works, arguing for their tinny, delicate sounds over thick, chordal opulence. The instrument may have also underscored the Russian folk sounds that characterize many of Stravinsky's early works.

The Taiwan-born, New York-based Lin also plays Stravinsky on the big grands, something she has been doing a lot lately. Her newest album is a collection of a dozen of the composer's solo piano works, and while many of them aren’t so well known – perhaps lacking the surging passions or flamboyant calisthenics employed by other Russian composers – she believes they have much to admire and enjoy.

"We really should know more about Stravinsky as a piano music composer because he composed a lot of the orchestra music on piano, and he was a very good pianist himself,” said Lin. Along with original solo piano pieces like the Sonata and the Serenade, there are some finger-twisting arrangements, notably Guido Agosti’s transcription of the Firebird Suite. Here Lin plays work’s the Danse infernale:

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Lin discovered Agosti’s Firebird transcription while studying in Italy as a teenager and that got her hooked on Stravinsky's work. “He's clever as a composer,” she noted. “He knows what gets an audience and can trigger the adrenaline.”

While Lin’s concert repertoire includes the hefty concertos of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, her discography tells of a more eclectic sensibility, spanning "InsomniMania," a collection of pieces inspired by nighttime dreams and anxieties, and "The Eleventh Finger,” devoted to complex modernists like Gyorgy Ligeti, Elliott Sharp and others. In the WQXR Café she also performed a selection from "Get Happy: Virtuoso Show Tunes for Piano.” The 2012 album featured arrangements of Broadway songs by such noted pianist-composers as André Previn, Stephen Hough, Marc-André Hamelin and Alexis Weissenberg.

“One should not take these pieces very lightly,” said Lin. “I have to say, I thought that doing the Broadway arrangement project would easy because of the tunes but it was the hardest thing I’ve had to do, because every pianist just took the tune and went off with it.”

Below is Lin’s performance of Gershwin’s Embraceable You, in an arrangement by the late Earl Wild:

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon

Café Concert: Jenny Lin

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Café Concert: Alisa Weilerstein

Mon, 27 Jan 2014 13:49:43 -0500

When Alisa Weilerstein came to the WQXR Café, it was during the epic cold blast that gripped New York, sending residents scurrying indoors while impairing string instruments with wayward pitch. Yet after a thorough warm-up, the cellist launched into soulful renditions of solo works by Osvaldo Golijov and J.S. Bach and the icy temps may have receded into memory.

Weilerstein, who is a 2011 recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" grant and a busy touring artist, performed what she described as "one of the most beloved pieces for cello," the Gigue from Bach's Cello Suite No. 3:

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Thoughts about the weather were further put aside when Weilerstein brought up her latest recording, an all-Dvorak affair that includes the Cello Concerto along with several miniatures (read more and get a free download here). She recorded the concerto last summer in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic. "There’s a kind of warmth and depth to their playing which I found very unique,” she said of the orchestra's sound.

Weilerstein spent a day at Dvorak’s 18th-century house on the outskirts of Prague where she performed beneath a portrait of Josefina Čermakova, the composer’s sister-in-law who died at any early age. The composer dedicated the third movement of his Cello Concerto to Čermakova, with whom he fell in love (it was not returned though and he eventually married her younger sister). Weilerstein then stayed for a photo shoot in the adjacent woods – that portrayed in his work From the Bohemian Forest.

The Dvorak Concerto has another significance for Weilerstein. In February 2009 she played the piece as part of an audition for Gustavo Dudamel. Ten months later, she was invited to play it with the conductor's Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Caracas. The performance was a hit, and led to a spontaneous invitation to join the orchestra on a Venezuelan tour. There she encountered Rafael Payare, a young conductor who also played French horn in the ensemble.

A relationship emerged and, last August, Weilerstein and Payare got married at the Caramoor Center in Katonah, NY. Their wedding, which was featured in the New York Times, came just two months after her trip to Prague. The couple appear to be developing a professional relationship too: this week, Weilerstein and Payare are performing the Brahms Double Concerto together in Hamburg, Germany (Weilerstein is scheduled to perform the Dvorak Concerto in December with the New York Philharmonic).

Below, Weilerstein performs Osvaldo Golijov’s Omaramor, a fantasia inspired by the legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel. “The cello is supposed to be walking through the streets of Buenos Aires," Weilerstein explained in lightly accented English. "Sometimes it’s melancholic, sometimes it’s very rough, sometimes very reflective. It’s a piece that I’ve played a lot over the past eight years and one that’s really important to be in the core cello repertoire."

Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: George Wellington; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon

Café Concert: Alisa Weilerstein

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Café Concert: Avi Avital

Sun, 19 Jan 2014 00:00:00 -0500

When it comes to standard classical repertoire, mandolin players don't often get a chance to show off. There’s Vivaldi's mandolin concerto and pieces by Hummel, Beethoven and Villa-Lobos. Mozart used it to accompany the Don's serenade in Don Giovanni and Mahler incorporated it into his Seventh Symphony.

When Avi Avital arrived on the scene less than a decade ago, he set out to dispel the mandolin’s somewhat dowdy reputation. After moving from his native Israel to Italy and then Berlin, he toured with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and began playing Balkan and Klezmer music. "Between Worlds," his second album on Deutsche Grammophon, is a further effort to bridge the instrument’s classical and folk identities. It focuses on new arrangements of classical compositions inspired by folk music, including works by Bartok, Piazzolla, Falla and Monti, among others.

Avital said he wasn’t so aware of the mandolin’s folk connections until he started to travel more in recent years. “Wherever I went in the world people associated it with different kinds of folk music – not only with bluegrass that we know here from the States,” he said. “But it’s so similar to other plucked string instruments from other cultures like the balalaika and the Buzuki and the pipa in China that I really realized that for many people, they associate the Mandolin with folk music, although it is a classical music instrument.

“It made me think about my own artistic identity, doing a lot of classical music but playing also improvised music and having projects with jazz musicians and world musicians.” For his second WQXR Café Concert (watch the first one here), Avital plays "Bucimis," a traditional Bulgarian dance tune in 15/16 meter. Watch the performance:

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“It’s a melody that I learned from an accordion player actually,” said Avital. “I was so captured. It has this special meter that I couldn’t put my finger on. Of course, I begged him to teach me this melody.”

The song represents one of three folk tunes on “Between Worlds,” along with a traditional Welsh melody (“Hen Ferchetan”) and a Klezmer improvisation (“Ora Bat Chaim”). They are pieces that represent “the raw material without any intervention of a classical composer,” Avital noted.

Two days after his Café Concert, Avital gave his recital debut at Carnegie Hall, an event he considers to be a landmark in his career and evidence that the mandolin is gaining a stronger foothold in classical music. “When I found myself playing classical mandolin and promoting it in the main classical halls, Carnegie, the temple of classical music, was obviously on my wish list,” he said. “It means a lot not only for me but it’s a huge milestone for this instrument that I truly believe is enjoying a nice renaissance.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise

Café Concert: Calmus Ensemble

Wed, 11 Dec 2013 09:44:39 -0500

Say Leipzig and classical music listeners may think of old, blue-chip institutions like the St. Thomas Boys Choir, the Gewandhaus Orchestra or the Bach-Archiv, which carries on the legacy of the German city’s most famous composer.

Most may not think of a young a capella quintet that covers Irish airs and folk songs, jazz tunes and pop hits by Michael Jackson, Sting and Freddie Mercury. But the Leipzig-based Calmus Ensemble has developed such versatility, with a repertoire that also reaches back to composers from Purcell and Bach to Mendelssohn and Debussy.

“The pop songs today have the same role as the madrigals centuries ago,” Ludwig Böhme, the ensemble's baritone told host Jeff Spurgeon (listen to the full interview and performance above).

Formed in 1999 by six male graduates of the Thomas Church Choir School, the group's personnel shifted early on and the gleaming soprano voice of Anja Lipfert was added in 2001 (the lineup today also includes countertenor Sebastian Krause, tenor Tobias Pöche and bass Joe Roesler). Calmus's members cite the King's Singers as a formative influence, and some critics have drawn (perhaps more unusual) comparisons to mixed-voice a cappella groups like the Swingle Singers.

Calmus stopped by the WQXR Café a day after their debut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to perform a holiday-focused program. They began with "Nova Nova," an ancient song given a modern twist in an arrangement by choral singer and composer Bob Chilcott.

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The Calmus musicians carry a distinctly German identity and they don't avoid the music of their hometown composers. But baritone Böhme insists that versatility is the group's ultimate calling card. "Our classical background is clear," he said. "When we sing pop arrangements we don't sound like pop singers. Everybody will hear our classical education. We always love the variety. There are many possibilities of where we can sing."

The Calmus musicians showed their cheekier side with a performance of "Jingle Bells." In Böhme's arrangement, it is combined with "Suesser die Glocken nie klingen" ("Sweeter the Bells Never Sound"),a German carol from the 1850s.

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Production & Text: Brian Wise

Café Concert: Calmus Ensemble

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Café Concert: Pacifica Quartet & Anthony McGill

Mon, 25 Nov 2013 09:00:00 -0500

VIDEO: The Pacifica Quartet & Anthony McGill Play Mozart

When a long-established string quartet brings in a fifth collaborator, questions inevitably arise: how will the four players interact with the newcomer? Who will call the shots in rehearsals, and how does the group dynamic change?

When the Pacifica Quartet gave a performance of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in the WQXR Café, that fifth member was Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He recently recorded the clarinet quintets of Brahms and Mozart with the Pacifica, for an album due out next spring.

"It's great to have that influx of new energy and new thoughts," Pacifica violist Masumi Per Rostad told host Jeff Spurgeon. "It changes our rehearsal process. It changes the way we interact with each other when it's just the four of us."

McGill joked that the group puts on its polite company face when he enters the room. "What's kind of funny about that, especially with a string quartet, is that most of the time, you’re really welcome, because they spend a lot of time with each other,” said McGill. "Every group has its own specific dynamic and it’s really fascinating to be able to feel that."

Along with his job at the Met, McGill is active as a chamber musician and soloist. He encounters a lot of Mozart, be it his chamber music or operas like Cosi fan tutte. "The way he captures the overtones and the sweetest part of the instrument is better than any other composer," McGill said of his clarinet writing. "The part of the instrument that sounds like the human voice – that’s the part that he zeroes in on and uses to the best of his abilities."

The Pacifica's Cafe Concert came one day after the quartet appeared at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall to perform with another notable artist, pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, in the rarely-heard Leo Ornstein Piano Quintet. Next year, the ensemble will mark its 20th anniversary with the premieres of commissioned works by Shulamit Ran and Julia Wolfe, the latter of which will be a string quintet with cellist Johannes Moser.

The Pacifica has seen other changes lately too. Last year, the group left the University of Illinois after nearly a decade as the resident quartet to join the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. It is the first quartet-in-residence at a school with a long string pedagogy tradition but much less of a chamber music bent. The quartet now teaches some 35 ensembles.

Does the name “Pacifica” – a holdover from the group’s founding in Los Angeles – ever seem strange given their Midwestern orientation now? “It’s a nice name and we’ve been happy with it," said Rostad. "Our students like to joke that they could call us the Cornfield-ica.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Noriko Okabe; Text & Production: Brian Wise

Café Concert: Pacifica Quartet & Anthony McGill

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Café Concert: Susanna Philips

Thu, 31 Oct 2013 00:00:00 -0400

The soprano Susanna Phillips brought to the WQXR Café a set of Mozart songs that have their roots in salon music, meant to be sung by mainly amateurs in living rooms and at social events. In keeping with this sensibility, she sat beside pianist Myra Huang at the keyboard in a strikingly un-diva-like approach.

This is not Phillips’s typical performance setting. She has a busy agenda at the Metropolitan Opera this season where she’s singing Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Rosalinde in a new staging of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and Musetta in La bohème a reprise of the role in which she made her house debut in 2008. She's also slated to appear with the major orchestras of San Francisco, Philadelphia and St. Louis, the latter being a concert performance of Britten's Peter Grimes at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 22.

But on this day, she decided to take it down few notches. As she told the assembled audience, “Mozart didn’t write too many songs but he always kept a notebook of song texts that he would use. I have a feeling that if he had lived longer, he would have set more.” One of Mozart’s most famous songs, "An Chloe," ("To Chloe") uses simple lyricism to convey a romantic encounter between two people.

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Next in the set was Mozart's song "Als Luise die Briefe Ihres Ungetreuen Liebhabers Verbrannte" ("As Louise Burned the Letters of Her Faithless Lover"). As it happens, this has a text by a woman, Gabriele von Baumberg, and its cumbersome title explains its dramatic storyline. The Huntsville, Alabama-raised Phillips notes that she sang this song for her college auditions, a choice that apparently paid off: she was accepted to Juilliard, from which she received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

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Phillips compares Mozart's music to “a really great Gucci or Armani suit," with clean lines and timeless quality. “I find that Mozart is the bellwether for a good vocal technique and whenever I’m not doing well vocally I go back to Mozart and find what my voice is again," she said. "You can’t hide in Mozart. You must vocally be very pure and lined up.”

Asked about her favorite Mozart roles, Phillips points to Fiordiligi from Cosi. “She’s fiery and deep and has a real true heart and struggles a lot with the conception of the voice that I’ve given her,” she said. In the recent Met production Phillips sang alongside her former college roommate, Isabelle Leonard. "I know her singing, I know her style and I know her dramatic impulses. It’s fun to have our voices blend."

Phillips's set ends with Mozart’s soaring, proto-Romantic "Abendempfindung" “(''Evening Thoughts'').

Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Naomi Lewin

Café Concert: Jason Vieaux and Julien Labro

Sun, 20 Oct 2013 00:00:00 -0400

VIDEO: Jason Vieaux and Julien Labro

Accordion and classical guitar: it’s an unusual combination but it seems to work for the guitarist Jason Vieaux and the accordionist and bandoneón player Julien Labro.

The two musicians – both of whom were classically trained but have also branched to some unusual places in their careers – came to the WQXR Café to offer a taste of their hybrid collaboration.

Almost indefinable in terms of style, their selections include elements of Brazilian samba, Argentinean tango and jazz-fusion, the latter of which can be found on Pat Metheny’s “Antonia” (watch below, with Labro playing the small Accordina). 

What is this seemingly unlikely duo doing together? Vieaux, whose repertoire typically straddles Spanish composers and J.S. Bach, tells Jeff Spurgeon that he heard Labro performing with the Hot Club of Detroit, a gypsy swing band, and admired his improv skills.

The guitarist approached the accordion player backstage after one show and asked him if he'd like to collaborate on the Piazzolla Double Concerto for Guitar and Bandoneón. "The way he shaped solos,” said Vieaux, “they had a really great narrative.”

“As soon as he said 'Piazzolla,' I said 'great,'” said Labro. “It will force me to get deeper into the bandoneón.” The bandoneón is loosely related to the accordion, having started in Germany as a poor man's church organ before immigrants brought it to Argentina, where it took hold in tango music.

The two musicians put together a chamber arrangement of the Piazzolla Concerto, which they debuted with the Linden String Quartet in Cleveland two years ago.

Labro was born and raised near Toulouse, France and attended the Marseille Conservatory during high school. Looking to expand his jazz knowledge, he moved to the U.S. and began studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, eventually receiving Masters degrees in both jazz and composition. He’s built a versatile career as a jazz performer, arranger and occasional soloist with orchestra.

Still, Labro admits, “people see my instrument and think, ‘oh man, here’s a polka dude coming up.’ I have to watch out for that.”

Vieaux, an intense, perfectionist personality who runs the Curtis Institute of Music’s guitar department, admits that he battled similar misconceptions during his own upbringing. As a teenager, he spent his time not “shredding” in garage rock bands but learning the Giuliani Grand Overture for the school talent show. “It took me a long time to realize that the classical guitar could function to attract women,” he conceded.

Labro and Vieaux have given only a handful of performances to date (including one at the new Noho club Subculture earlier this month) but there is talk of deeper collaborations including a recording together. Even though the two men live in different cities – Labro in Toronto and Vieaux in Cleveland – they contend that the distance helps keep things fresh.

“We haven’t really talked much about the organism of this duo,” said Vieaux. “Maybe that’s what’s making the arrangements more free. We don’t rehearse all the time.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon

Café Concert: Béla Fleck

Tue, 10 Sep 2013 00:00:00 -0400

VIDEO: Béla Fleck plays The Imposter in the WQXR Café

When Béla Fleck came to the WQXR Café, curious staff members began asking about his repertoire. Would he be playing Scarlatti or Scruggs? A Bach invention or a bluegrass breakdown?

Fleck can do all of those things and more. Almost single-handedly, he established the banjo's capacity to move easily across genres stretching from the blues and bluegrass to contemporary jazz and world music.

But being at a classical music station, Fleck, 55, wasn't about to miss an opportunity to show off his classical chops, so he focused on excerpts from The Imposter, a new banjo concerto he composed for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. "You’ll just have to imagine the orchestra – we couldn’t afford them today," he joked, before launching into the repeated arpeggiated riffs of its second movement.

The Imposter is dedicated to Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass pioneer who brought the banjo back to national prominence during the 1950s and 60s. Scruggs attended Fleck's premiere of the concerto in September 2011, six months before he passed away at age 88.

"Earl Scruggs did so many things, from bringing the banjo out of the hills and back into the mainstream—because the banjo was a very popular instrument in the late 1800s and early 1900s," Fleck told host Jeff Spurgeon. "And then it pretty much was dying out in terms of the mainstream."

Just as Scruggs covered rock tunes in the 1960s like Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and played in rock and pop venues, Fleck has sought to push the limits of the instrument. In the 1980s Fleck played with the cutting-edge group New Grass Revival, known for its wild, virtuosic style, and by the '90s he was fronting his own band the Flecktones, which remains active today.

Fleck edged his way into classical concert halls starting with "Perpetual Motion," a 2001 album of classical pieces for which he won a pair of Grammy awards. A few years later he collaborated with bassist Edgar Meyer and the Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain on a Triple Concerto, premiered with the Detroit Symphony and conductor Leonard Slatkin.

Along with the concerto, Fleck's new recording features Night Flight Over Water, an original piece he plays with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider (a joint national tour is planned for the fall and winter). He said that while an orchestra can feel overwhelming in size, "with a string quartet, we’re all sitting very close to each other just as we would be in a bluegrass band."

Does Fleck encounter much resistance to the idea of a banjo in classical settings, with requests to play something more "down home?"

"That’s a stereotype about the banjo, that it can only be happy,” he said. "I've done some very sad banjo playing. And I’ve heard people play soulful, simple melodies on the banjo that make you want to cry. So it’s really about the musician."

Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon

Café Concert: Béla Fleck

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Café Concert: Imani Winds

Tue, 30 Jul 2013 14:00:00 -0400

VIDEO: Imani Winds perform 'Red Clay Mississippi Delta' Imani Winds was a novelty when it first arrived on the scene in 1997, a wind quintet that veered away from the customary European classical fare to focus on compositions drawing from African and Latin American styles and idioms. Composers like Astor Piazzolla, Paquito D’Rivera and Wayne Shorter were the group's mainstays. So were arrangements of spirituals or songs by jazz singer Josephine Baker. Critics and audiences praised the quintet's freshness and accessibility. But its members started to feel pigeonholed. "At the beginning of our career, we used to do a lot of children's concerts,” Toyin Spellman-Diaz, the quintet’s oboist, told WQXR's Jeff Spurgeon. “That was kind of our vehicle into the large concert stage. People would hire us to do a bunch of residency activities in their town and we would do a main stage concert.” By playing for kids the quintet learned how to ratchet up their on-stage energy, a skill that also served increasingly distracted adults. “But making that into a more sophisticated thing, and learning how to be sophisticated artists, that’s our next evolution,” said Spellman-Diaz. “Our manager has this phrase: 'we’re trying to go from being successful to being significant.'" By any measure, the Imani Winds has been a success. The group has taken an outlier format in chamber music – lacking the deep repertoire of a string quartet – and has commissioned dozens of works. It has released eight recordings, the latest being an arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for EMI. Along with touring, the group is a staple on Public Radio stations across the U.S. In an effort to build a sharper identity in New York, the quintet has launched the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, which begins its fourth installment this Thursday. The four-day event features performances at Juilliard, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church and Bryant Park, plus a daylong symposium at Mannes College of Music, and an emerging composers workshop. The Imani will perform with violinist Lara St. John and host guest ensembles like the Zodiac Trio and Project Trio. “The festival came about as a macrocosm of what we do on the road, which is to perform an evening concert and go and give a master class at the local conservatory or school of music,” said Mariam Adam, the group’s clarinetist. “That recipe became necessary for us to expand on.” Adam notes that the quintet's recent tours abroad have been a wakeup call. The exposure to other styles "has been wonderful to regain a concept of what the wind quintet is and what it can be,” she said. As the Imani Winds members seek to deepen their profile, the members face the immediate reality of family life. Flutist Valerie Coleman is currently away on maternity leave (Sato Moughalian is filling in) and bassoonist Monica Ellis is expecting a baby shortly. The group plans to use substitutes, said Spellman-Diaz, noting that both children are due two days apart from each other. "It’s a testament to women living together in harmony in that we are very much joined together in a way that we don’t understand at this point," she joked. Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: George Wellington; Text & Production: Brian Wise [...]Café Concert: Imani Winds

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Café Concert: Conrad Tao

Sun, 09 Jun 2013 00:00:00 -0400

The pianist and composer Conrad Tao seemed remarkably relaxed when he sat down at the Yamaha to perform his Café Concert at WQXR. The calm demeanor might seem at odds with the heavy load Tao has been carrying. Having recently given a recital to a packed house at Le Poisson Rouge, on Tuesday, he inaugurates the Unplay Festival, a three-day event that he is organizing at Powerhouse Arena, a bookstore and art space in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Also on Tuesday, Tao releases "Voyages," his full-length debut album on EMI, a collection of his own music as well as pieces by Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Meredith Monk. By no coincidence, he also turns 19 that day. Tao is the first to acknowledge the “incestuous cross-promotion” in the way events came together. “It happens,” he said, with a wry smile. “I must acknowledge that.” But after several years on the concerto-and-recital circuit – and now a student in the Juilliard-Columbia double-degree program – Tao is also at a point where he wants to explore bigger ideas around classical music and its place in society. Tao has had a considerable past decade. A native of Champagne, Illinois, he gave his first recital at age four. At nine, he and his parents moved to New York and he began studying piano in Juilliard’s pre-college division with Yoheved Kaplinsky. Around the same time, he began composition lessons with Christopher Theofanidis, an in-demand composer who now teaches at Yale. Tao signed with professional management and, by age 16, orchestras were calling, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and Detroit Symphony. Awards also poured in, including eight Ascap Morton Gould Young Composer Awards; a 2012 Gilmore Foundation Young Artist Award; and a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts recognition. Tao has studied the violin, has written pop songs and is currently working on a commission for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, about the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, slated to premiere in November. Yet Tao clearly isn’t content with the post-prodigy treadmill and admits to a restless, oppositional streak. The Unplay Festival he said “is about what does music and do musicians occupy. I was interested in how I could find performers who are engaging in this act of ‘unplaying’ insofar as they’re dismantling certain basic traditional ideas of what it means to be a classical performer.” Those performers will include Sideband (an ensemble using laptops and speakers), the violinist Todd Reynolds, the Face the Music Ensemble, Iktus Percussion and ThingNY, a multimedia ensemble. Programs will explore ideas of genre-blurring and the use of technology in performance (Tao himself has written music for piano and iPad). "Since so much of the intellectual process of music is unlearning what you take for granted to be true a lot of this is about applying this to my own practice of being a performer," Tao said of the festival's title. Planning the festival has taken Tao some 18 months, during which time he's had to juggle his studies at Columbia, where he is pursuing a concentration in ethnicity and race studies. “It’s a lot,” he said. “Sometimes it’s easy to justify because I really love everything I’m doing and sometimes it’s harder. It is ultimately about galvanizing all these different things.” Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: George Wellington; Text & Production: Brian Wise [...]Café Concert: Conrad Tao

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Café Concert: Richard and Mika Stoltzman

Wed, 29 May 2013 13:54:12 -0400

VIDEO: Richard and Mika Stoltzman play in the WQXR Cafe Richard Stoltzman really wants to feel that he's connecting with his audiences – even if it means resorting to nudity. In an interview with Naomi Lewin, the veteran clarinetist at first rebuffed a question about a mid-concert streaking incident from his past. But the interrogation began with a remark he made before his WQXR Café Concert, which featured jazzy duets with his wife, the marimba player Mika Stoltzman. In introducing the concert, Stoltzman recalled a recent school outreach performance, in which he found himself before a room of distracted students, all glued to their iPhones and other electronic devices. "First of all, you don’t perform until you have the attention of the people who you are going to perform for,” Stoltzman explained. "These kids, they came because they were told to. And nobody told them, ‘by the way, take off your earphones and don’t use your cellphones.’” The clarinetist has long been known for getting audiences to pay attention through non-traditional means, particularly through occasional crossover projects with artists like Judy Collins, Wayne Shorter, Mel Tormé, Gary Burton and George Shearing. His latest such effort, which he calls "New Genre," takes place on Thursday at Weill Recital Hall and features a host of jazz artists including Mika Stoltzman, whom he married last year. But there was a moment, in a 1974 concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that has entered clarinet lore. After some pressing by Lewin, Stoltzman explained why he decided to streak naked across the stage. "It was a very frustrating motivation, having played these great concerts with Felix Galimir,” Stoltzman said, referring to the great Viennese violinist. “We were playing the Adagio from Alban Berg’s Kammerkonzert. We were playing in a very establishment kind of chamber music concert and I know how hard we had worked on the Alban Berg piece.” Stoltzman and his colleagues had barely left the stage before the applause had ended. “I saw Felix backstage and he looked so slumped over. Here I am in my own city. Here we were playing these great composers and the response is so dispiriting – there was no visceral reaction from the audience. Are they alive? What’s going on here?” “So that’s what got me started.” The incident was hardly covered in the local news media, and aside from a 1979 article in People magazine, it has seldom been mentioned since. But to a large extent, it was indicative of Stoltzman’s free-spirited early years, when he was a member of TASHI, classical music's answer to a progressive rock supergroup. Also comprised of violinist Ida Kavafian, pianist Peter Serkin and cellist Fred Sherry, the quartet's members shunned ties and gowns for ponytails and love beads (its name is a Tibetan word meaning "good fortune.") Like a '70s rock band, TASHI had a reunion tour, in 2008, which Stoltzman recalls fondly. “Our first one was in Portland,” he said. “I saw it was packed with all people that looked like me, with gray hair. Some of the guys still had headbands and they had their LPs with them. They wanted us to sign their LPs. “I thought, 'this is unbelievable.' We sat down and they wouldn’t stop clapping. I think they were clapping more for themselves than for us. I think they felt like, ‘we went through a lot. We love music and we wanted to have our own cham[...]Café Concert: Richard and Mika Stoltzman

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Café Concert: Benjamin Verdery

Wed, 22 May 2013 18:00:00 -0400

Behold the many sides of Benjamin Verdery.

Seated in the WQXR Café with his baritone guitar in hand, Verdery lets introspective pieces by Bach and Randy Newman spill forth with a hushed introspection.

But speaking behind a microphone, Verdery becomes garrulous and animated, expounding on squeaky strings, the music of Elvis Presley and teaching in the age of YouTube.

Verdery is nothing if not steeped in the world of classical guitar: he travels the globe appearing at specialized guitar festivals, delivering week-long master classes from Maui to Amsterdam, and overseeing the guitar department at Yale University, a post he has held since 1985. His website contains the requisite sections devote to instruments, gear and teaching tips.  

Verdery has a populist streak too. As artistic director of the guitar series at the 92nd St Y, he curates a series of guitar recitals and performs there himself, as he will on Thursday in a solo concert of works by Albeniz, Bach and Ezra Landerman as well as arrangements of songs by Prince and Presley.

Adapting pop songs for the classical guitar, Verdery says, isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. He says that an arrangement like “Kiss” by Prince (listen above), is conceived as a kind of collage.

“I generally gravitate towards something that sounds really exciting and cool on the classical guitar,” he told host Jeff Spurgeon. “With the Prince, who doesn’t want to do that?” Verdery will transcribe bits of the tune, then adapt the bass line or the drum part into a thicker accompaniment parts. “There I have to do some composing because I’m not singing. It’s so joyful.”

Verdery ends his Café Concert with "In Germany Before The War," a 1977 song by Randy Newman inspired by the Fritz Lang film M, which featured Peter Lorre as serial killer Hans Beckert. Newman has said the brooding song was intended as a metaphor for a nation about to enter a period of horror and transgression.

It’s finding unlikely songs like this or working with younger composers that seems to keep Verdery going. "The astounding thing is the instrument still fascinates me,” he said. “As you get older pieces seem to grow with you, especially the great ones.

“[Pianist] Dinu Lipatti said, ‘You don’t pick pieces, pieces pick you. As you go through life, even the simplest pieces can mean so much. You’re always humbled – by both the instrument because it still sounds fresh and unusual – and by the music.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon; Text & Production: Brian Wise

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Café Concert: Benjamin Verdery

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Café Concert: Brooklyn Rider

Mon, 06 May 2013 00:00:00 -0400

The four men of Brooklyn Rider arrived at the WQXR Café on a recent morning feeling groggy and jet-lagged, having returned three days earlier from a tour to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. But it was time to rally. Their set list would feature exuberant pieces inspired by the music of Eastern Europe, ancient Persia and beyond.

Travel -- in a metaphorical sense -- has been an ongoing theme for this genre-bending string quartet, whose members cut their teeth in Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. The group's sixth and most recent album, “A Walking Fire,” is named after a poem by the 13th-century poet Rumi, and it includes Bartok's String Quartet No. 2 as well as several new pieces. Among them is Culai by Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin, a Russian-born, New York-based composer who has collaborated with the quartet on several occasions. Here is the movement "Love Potion, Expired."

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With its rollicking, jagged rhythms, the work is a tribute to Nicolae "Culai" Neacsu, the late violinist and vocalist of the Gypsy string ensemble, Taraf de Haiidouks. It's also consistent with Brooklyn Rider's embrace of non-Western styles.

In an interview on WNYC’s Soundcheck, violinist Colin Jacobsen noted how Debussy was profoundly influenced by the Javanese gamelan music he heard at the Paris International Exposition in 1889. Similarly, Bartok drew on the folk music he heard while traveling the countryside of Hungary and Romania with a tape recorder in the early 1900s. Brooklyn Rider has not only played those composers' works, but also collaborated with artists like the Chinese pipa player Wu Man, the Japanese shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki and Kayhan Kalhor, the Iranian master of the kamancheh, or Persian fiddle.

Jacobsen's own Three Miniatures for String Quartet, featured on "A Walking Fire," was inspired by the Islamic art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which reopened in 2011. The work particularly draws on a miniature painting tradition "in which epic stories of love, heroism and allegories of human folly are played out in tiny portraits of incredible detail and texture." The movement “Majnun’s Moonshine” opens the quartet's café concert and can be heard in the audio above.

To round out their set, the quartet performed Zhurbin’s arrangement of Doina Oltului (“Song of the River Olt”), a traditional Romanian song. With its bent notes, rhythmic bowing and heavy offbeats, the piece seemed to momentarily transform the cafe into a rustic village tavern.

Video: Amy Pearl & Kim Nowacki; Sound: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise

Café Concert: Brooklyn Rider

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Café Concert: Isabelle Faust

Tue, 26 Mar 2013 14:35:32 -0400

VIDEO: Isabelle Faust Plays Bach's Partita No. 3 in C Major

In an age when crossover-slanted, heavily promoted violin babes are a staple of record industry marketing, Isabelle Faust’s career seems cut from a different cloth. Though the German violinist has made nearly 20 albums since the late 90s, her photo appears on the cover of just a few. A casual Internet search turns up a Wikipedia page that is only in German and a few profiles in industry trade magazines.

In Europe, Faust has appeared as a soloist with many premier orchestras and chamber music series. In 1993, she became the first German to win the Paganini Competition of Genoa. Four years later she received UK-based Gramophone magazine’s “Young Artist of the Year” award.

Faust came to Philadelphia in the early 1990s to study at the Curtis Institute of Music and made her American debut with the Utah Symphony in 1995. But she only made her first appearance with a top U.S. orchestra in 2008, with the Boston Symphony. Her debut with the New York Philharmonic came last week, as part of its “Bach Variations” festival.

Why the slow burn? While admired by violin aficionados, Faust is also notably self-effacing and unpretentious. She waxes enthusiastic about learning Beethoven from the manuscript scores and discovering neglected composers.

“I am convinced that there’s lots of music that nobody really knows or nobody really cares to play and which is still either very, very interesting music or very high quality music,” she told Jeff Spurgeon at a recent public talk at the David Rubinstein Atrium. "Sometimes it happens and then I think one should defend this music and also educate the public.” She pauses and laughs. “That sounds very severe.”

Faust’s early recordings were not of splashy violin showpieces but works by Bela Bartok, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Andre Jolivet and Morton Feldman. Last year she recorded the sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach, the third of which she played in the WQXR Café. Faust admits they present a particular challenge. “I do play those sonatas and partitas in one evening, which is a challenge for everybody, for the violinist and also for the public,” she said. “I do find the public needs to come closer to me and it’s difficult to come to the public with this music. It’s such an inner music.”

Faust’s violin is a 1704 Stradivarius nicknamed the "Sleeping Beauty." "It's called the Sleeping Beauty because it was forgotten about for 150 years,” she told the South China Morning Post. “Then around 1900, it was found again."

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Chase Culpon; Text & Production: Brian Wise

Café Concert: Pekka Kuusisto

Tue, 05 Mar 2013 16:30:41 -0500

Watch the following two videos of Pekka Kuusisto and see if you notice something unusual about them. Not the fact that the puckish Finnish violinist sits perched on a stool, as if in a neighborhood pub, or the fact that his striped uniform creates a visual harmony with the radiator and blinds in the background. It has more to do with the wispy, folksiness he brings to the Sarabande from Bach's Partita in D minor for solo violin.

Rather than presenting one of those "warm," "expressive" sounds violinists are supposed to make, Kuusisto gives it a breathy flair that’s entirely personal, and which he chalks up to the time of day. "Because it’s pretty early in the morning, it’s probably going to be a bit more improvisatory than if we were at Carnegie Hall at 8 o’clock in the evening,” he said. “That would be more serious.”

Kuusisto, 36, has made his reputation as a sound stylist who plays both traditional and electronic violins, as an ambassador for his native Finland who has played the Sibelius Violin Concerto hundreds of times, but also as an advocate for his country’s folk melodies.

For the second selection, the Finnish tune “Piupali Paupali," Kuusisto’s violin becomes a makeshift mandolin, and he delivers lyrics that are half-nonsense and half-narrative (about a boy’s trip to a shoemaker). The style of violin playing “is not really Finnish but it’s one of these songs that most people in Finland would recognize,” he explained. The tune was Americanized when Finns moved to the Upper Midwest and Canada and it became common to accompany the melody with a banjo or mandolin.

Kuusisto, who gained international attention in 1995 when he became the first Finn to win the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition, is tough to pigeonhole. This month he’s premiering a Violin Concerto by the electronic artist Owen Pallett (a.k.a. Final Fantasy) and is premiering Four Iconoclastic Episodes with New Jersey guitarist and composer Steve Mackey. The night before his Café Concert he appeared at the Greenwich Village club Le Poisson Rouge to give a recital that included works by Bach, Nico Muhly and his own “Music for swallowed microphone” (a piece as unconventional as the title suggests). That show can be heard archived on Q2 Music.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Sound: George Wellington; Text & Production: Brian Wise

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Café Concert: The Endellion String Quartet

Mon, 18 Feb 2013 00:00:00 -0500

When the members of the Endellion String Quartet were leaving the WQXR studios after their Café Concert, a curious question arose: Where could they find a Checker cab on the street? The iconic, boxy taxis, of course, have long been absent from New York City streets but the musicians could be forgiven for the oversight. The London-based quartet was in town for their first New York appearance since 1995. The longtime absence is something of a puzzle, as group has maintained an active presence in the UK. The quartet has released major recording projects that have received awards from the British press, appeared on BBC radio and television, performed at the Proms in London and toured through Europe and beyond. Making up for lost time, the quartet is performing all of Beethoven's string quartets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the course of six concerts through February 24. So why the absence? "Because you didn’t ask us,” said David Waterman, the quartet’s cellist, with a laugh. “We used to play here quite often in our early days because we were the winners of the YCA Competition.” The ensemble won the 1981 Young Concert Artists competition in New York and appeared here regularly throughout the 1980s and early '90s. In the WQXR Café, the ensemble performed a movement of Beethoven's Quartet Op. 130. "For us as a quartet, it’s one of the great pinnacles of the work we do,” said Endellion violist Garfield Jackson, referring to the Beethoven cycle. “It is a mountain to climb and at the moment, because we haven’t done the first concert yet, I feel we’re staring up from base camp.” The Endellion was formed in 1979 by four London freelancers who convened at a chamber music festival in St. Endellion, England. The ensemble has had only one personnel change since, when Ralph de Souza replaced Louise Williams in 1986. To what do they owe their longevity? “I think laziness is a very useful thing,” said Jackson, half joking. “It takes energy to fight. I think none of us are very good at wasting our energy fighting. Personally I need as much as I can to play concerts.” Taking a more serious tact, he adds, “I think over the years, you learn where to nudge and push and where not to waste one’s energy. Time does build a confidence to do it the way that seems to suit the people involved.” While some quartets of the past kept a single-minded approach by forbidding one another to take outside performing or teaching engagements, the members of the Endellion say they've adopted a more carefree attitude. They have sought to reduce the intensity of their performance schedule over time and encourage each other to do performing outside the group as well as teaching and conducting. And unlike some famed quartets that travel and eat meals separately, "usually we eat together,” said Waterman. “Normally we’ll arrange to meet for lunch or supper or whatever." "It does seem that it’s been a general trend to reduce intensity rather than crank it up.” Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: George Wellington; Production & Text: Brian Wise; Interview: Naomi Lewin frameborder="0" height="349" src="" width="620"> [...]Café Concert: The Endellion String Quartet

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Café Concert: Jan Vogler

Mon, 11 Feb 2013 17:47:49 -0500

VIDEO: Jan Vogler Plays from Bach's Suite No. 3 Jan Vogler is often identified as a German cellist but in many ways, he’s a quintessential New Yorker: he lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and two daughters, enjoys jogging in Central Park and biking along the West Side Highway, and speaks impeccable English in an enthusiastic, rapid patter. He married his wife, the violinist Mira Wang, downtown at City Hall. Vogler, 48, has also infiltrated the city’s classical music institutions since moving here in 1997. Last year, he released his third album with Brooklyn chamber orchestra The Knights, featuring Beethoven's Triple Concerto. He is a frequent soloist with the New York Philharmonic, having made his breakthrough recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the ensemble in 2005. He is to appear with the orchestra again in Bloch’s Schelomo on Feb. 21-22. But Vogler is also of a generation of musicians trained in the isolation of the former East Germany, a place that “felt very small," as he explained. Born in Dresden, Vogler was the son of a respected cello teacher whose students included Western diplomats who would cross into East Germany for lessons. Some would smuggle in CDs, tapes and books by Western artists. “My father had the best library you can imagine in East Germany – all the American authors, all the French authors,” Vogler recalled. "We felt the world was very great and very big. But we were captured in a rather small space. I was always dreaming of speaking many languages and traveling the world.” He continued: “We had to be careful. We grew up in two worlds. At home we were in a very liberal and open household. [But] we were trained very early, when you leave the house you’re in a different world.” After fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Vogler spent several summers at the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Vermont, that ultra-American training institution where he met Wang. They began performing together, and recorded a 1999 album of cello and piano duos (the cover photo shows them posing on the Brooklyn Bridge). Around the same period of the late '90s, Vogler recorded two of Bach's cello suites, on a CD with three suites by Max Reger. But only recently did he begin performing all of Bach’s landmark suites in public. “It took me a long time to decide to play in concert all six," he said. "I did this last summer and I discovered first how thrilling it is for the performer. But also it seemed not boring for the audience.” Part of the impetus for tackling the complete Bach suites was a new cello: a Stradivarius called the "Ex Castelbarco/Fau," which Vogler acquired last spring on a long-term loan. A recording of the suites is due out in March. In the meantime, he performed three movements from the Suite No. 3 in C Major in the WQXR Café. What does the Stradivarius bring to the equation? “The clarity, the articulation and just the maturity of the Strad,” he said. “I don’t know what it exactly it is. It was just working.” Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise frameborder="0" height="349" src="" width="620"> [...]Café Concert: Jan Vogler

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Café Concert: Jennifer Koh

Thu, 24 Jan 2013 00:00:00 -0500

VIDEO: Jennifer Koh performs in the WQXR Café Somewhere along the way in her 20-some year career, Jennifer Koh jumped off the violin soloist treadmill in favor of less familiar paths and creative channels. She fashioned an ongoing recital series called “Bach and Beyond” that involves juxtapositions of Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas with contemporary works by composers like Phil Kline, Missy Mazzoli and Kaija Saariaho. She gives her New York Philharmonic subscription debut this week not with a beloved warhorse like the Tchaikovsky or Brahms Concerto but Lutoslawski’s Chain 2, a dark, knotty work composed for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 1984. And she has struck up a working relationship with the veteran theater and opera director Robert Wilson, which will expand this November in a staged version of Bach’s solo violin music in Paris. Koh came to know Wilson when she appeared in the title role in a new touring production of Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass’s landmark opera that came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October. “I was quite scared going into the rehearsal process because I’ve never acted or done anything in that way,” Koh, 36, told Jeff Spurgeon. “I’ve never played a character. In fact, for me, performing and being a musician is about being more myself there than anywhere else in a sense and being more purely human. “I didn’t even know where stage right was. They were like, 'walk on to stage right' and I was like, 'which direction is this?’” In the five-hour opera, Koh doesn’t just perform Glass's churning "Knee Plays" but dons the full Einstein costume, complete with silver wig and mustache. Wilson's acting coaching made a strong impression on Koh. “In a way, I’ve been searching for a long time for this idea, [whether] doing 'Bach and Beyond,' or creating these projects," she said. "In the end it’s ‘how do you create an experience, and really create a journey for your audience?’ What Bob does with Einstein, with time, it changes your conception of that.” Koh’s career got off to a start more typical of a child prodigy: she made her debut with the Chicago Symphony at age 11, studied at Oberlin College in her teens, and took home a silver medal at the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition, the latter while wearing a poofy green dress. But in recent years she's shown an increasingly adventurous streak, as the choice of the Lutoslawski for her Philharmonic debut suggests. "I believe it’s a great piece and it deserves to be heard more,” she said. “And more than that, the reason I’m happy to do it in New York is that so many of my composer colleagues and friends are in the city and there’s something about his music that is such an important voice that does need to be heard.” In the WQXR Café, Koh performs selections the final two movements of Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2, a piece that she performed last year at an event for South Korea's First Lady Kim Yoon-ok, hosted by US First Lady Michelle Obama. “I remembered that I was so excited when I met her at the receiving line that I almost knocked over the first lady of Korea,” Koh recalled. "I just hopped towards Michelle Obama to give her a hug. Then I had to give my apologies to the first[...]Café Concert: Jennifer Koh

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Café Concert: Chilly Gonzales

Mon, 14 Jan 2013 17:41:32 -0500

VIDEO: Chilly Gonzales performs in the WQXR Café If Franz Liszt were alive today, he may find a certain kinship with Chilly Gonzales. The German-based Canadian pianist and composer is the current holder of the world record for longest solo concert, at 27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds. He has crowd-surfed at a BBC Symphony concert in London, challenged the rocker Andrew W.K. to a piano battle (and won), and has pioneered his own brand of “orchestral rap.” A self-proclaimed "musical genius," Gonzales has made a two-decade career out of straddling musical styles and genres. His ridiculously prolific resume includes producing albums by big-name pop artists like Feist, Drake and Daft Punk; getting his music on the first iPad commercial; and writing solo piano pieces that evoke the melancholic grace of Satie or Franck. Gonzales’s Café Concert stressed the classical side of his creative output, featuring his original songs (watch a mash-up of his "Otello" and "Minor Fantasy" below). And while many pianists would shutter at playing on a (slightly creaky) upright, Gonzales embraced the task. “I luckily have a lot of experience playing pianos,” he told Jeff Spurgeon. “Once in a while you can’t figure certain women out; you can’t figure certain pianos out either. You do your best. In this case, I managed to flirt a little bit and make a few jokes and had her laughing pretty quickly.” Gonzales was in New York to perform his Piano Concerto No. 1, backed by an 11-piece chamber orchestra at Lincoln Center’s David Rubinstein Atrium. Despite the concerto's formal title, he insists that his compositions are “songs,” not “pieces,” even as he acknowledges the influence of French and Russian romantic composers. “We’re not in the 19th century anymore. We’re in the 21st," said Gonzales, who was born Jason Charles Beck. “For me, for example, the obsession with structure was a huge thing for classical composers, but that’s not really an issue for me. I grew up watching MTV. There’s nothing wrong with verse-chorus-verse-chorus. That’s the currency of our generation these days.” Gonzales studied classical music at McGill University in his hometown of Montreal, graduating in the same class as the songwriter Rufus Wainwright. He says he never quite fit the formal conservatory mold. “I was traumatized by the institutions but fell in love with the meaning of the music,” he said, noting his love of Liszt and Tchaikovsky. “My favorite composers tend to be ones who were conscious of the audience. And for better or for worse, they had personalities that meant that they needed some sort of approval of the audience, but on their own terms.” He continued: “I’ve always focused on the noble profession of being a showman. To me, being an entertainer – which is what I prefer to call myself rather than artist – is a way of saying entertainment doesn’t have to mean pandering to the lowest common denominator.” Gonzales admits that his Guinness World Record performance, set in Paris in 2009, was an attempt at “selling the idea of me as a musical genius and what I’m capable of doing.” He said that the hardest part of the event was not[...]Café Concert: Chilly Gonzales

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Café Concert: Julian Rachlin

Thu, 06 Dec 2012 15:26:10 -0500

VIDEO: Julian Rachlin and Itamar Golan play Brahms

There’s a kind of ceremonial air when violinist Julian Rachlin arrives at WQXR for his Café Concert. Looking tanned and nattily dressed, he’s clutching a double case containing both a violin and viola.

Keeping his jacket on, Rachlin reaches for the violin, a 1704 Stradivarius known as the "Ex-Liebig." He consults with his longtime pianist, Itamar Golan, speaking in a mixture of Russian and English, while his Austrian girlfriend (whom he speaks with in German), sets a timer on her iPhone. The two musicians run through their piece for the day’s program: the first movement of Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 1.

After making some adjustments – tweaking tempos, phrases and a couple of repeats – the rehearsal is over. Rachlin and Golan begin the lush, G-major Sonata, its hushed introspection giving way to dramatic outbursts followed by passages of tranquil lullaby. 

Rachlin and Golan, who are in town for a pair of all-Brahms recitals at the 92nd Street Y, have been performing together since 1996. “Of course, the Brahms sonatas were always part of the recitals but we’ve never done the complete cycle,” said Rachlin. “I think it’s a very natural wish for a musician to play the whole cycle, to travel a whole journey with one composer.”

Rachlin was born in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1974, and moved with his family to Vienna four years later. The violinist has made the Austrian capital his home ever since, studying at the Vienna Conservatory and later becoming the youngest soloist ever to play with the Vienna Philharmonic, under Riccardo Muti. His teenage years were difficult at times: a major label record contract went south unexpectedly and the business of classical music revealed its troublesome side.

Rachlin recovered from the prodigy period, and has developed a more rounded career that includes chamber music, concertos, occasional conducting and a teaching post at the Vienna Conservatory. Work as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and occasional ski holidays fill out much of Rachlin’s time.

Until recently, the violinist ran a September chamber music festival in Dubrovnik, Croatia, called Julian Rachlin and Friends. While it drew some notable names and critical praise, the festival’s 12th edition was its last, for now at least. Rachlin said it fell victim to a difficult funding climate for the arts in Croatia. “I had the opportunity of calling my musician friends and forming the right teams together for the chamber music,” he said. “I also learned how difficult it is, to fight for sponsors, to get the funds together and to run a festival. But it was a great school for me to see how the classical music world runs behind the curtains.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Production & Text: Brian Wise

Café Concert: The Canellakis-Brown Duo

Fri, 16 Nov 2012 11:51:20 -0500

VIDEO: The Canellakis-Brown Duo performs a Bulgarian Folk Tune

The cellist Nicholas Canellakis and the pianist Michael Brown are a duo with a double life. Together, the two musicians perform in chamber venues around New York City, and have a residency at Barbès, a bar in Brooklyn. They hold advanced degrees from top music schools – Canellakis studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and Brown attended the Juilliard School – and devise programs that span eras and styles.

But to really get a sense of the two artists’ personalities, watch their online comedy series "Conversations with Nick Canellakis." The interviews are set up under the guise of super-polite classical music discussions but then inevitably degenerate into something more petty and craven, revealing undercurrents of jealousy and career opportunism.

In one episode they condescendingly ask the pianist Jonathan Biss for his resume and wonder aloud why he took the subway to his Carnegie Hall debut. In another we see their bumbling attempts to hit on the young pianist Yuja Wang. Then there’s a sit-down with the Emerson Quartet in which Canellakis wishes he'd instead landed the Guarneri Quartet, while purporting to give career advice to outgoing cellist David Finckel.

Directed by Canellakis, the satirical videos have acquired cult status in classical music circles and have been compared to Mike Myers' old "Wayne's World" sketches on "Saturday Night Live," or Sasha Baron Cohen's Ali G character (minus the ambush-style interviewing technique).

Canellakis has cited Larry David, Louis C.K. and Zach Galifianakis as comic inspirations. His previous filmmaking credits include a satire of “The Shining,” set in the darkened halls of Curtis Institute (see parts one, two and three).

But there is also serious side to the two musicians’ careers. Canellakis performs with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and was previously a member of Carnegie Hall's Academy; Brown, who was a first prize winner of the 2010 Concert Artists Guild competition and is also a composer, has recordings of Schubert and George Perle's piano music in the works.

In the WQXR Café the duo presented an arrangement of a "Ganka's Dance," a Bulgarian folk tune in 11/8 time that is a staple for Balkan folk bands. “There are a lot of different versions,” noted Canellakis. “I fell in love with it and decided to make a virtuoso cello piece out of it.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: George Wellington; Production & Text: Brian Wise

Café Concert: Maya Beiser

Tue, 09 Oct 2012 17:24:00 -0400

VIDEO: Maya Beiser performs in the WQXR Café Maya Beiser has been pushing her cello to the edge of avant-garde risk-taking since the early 1990s. Composers as diverse as Steve Reich, Osvaldo Golijov and Tan Dun have written works especially for her, and she was a founding member of the Bang On A Can All-Stars. Her Twitter account is called "Cello Goddess" and one of her crossover successes is an arrangement of the Led Zeppelin tune "Kashmir." Yet Beiser's biggest calling cards these days are theatrical works that involve videos, electronics, lighting effects, spoken poetry and all manner of sounds from her instrument. Many tackle dense literary themes or social-political issues. The latest is "Elsewhere: A CelloOpera," a commission from the Carolina Performing Arts series which arrives at at BAM’s Fisher Theater on Oct. 17. Scored by Eve Beglarian, Michael Gordon and Missy Mazzoli, the piece is directed by Robert Woodruff and incorporates film, dance, spoken text and vocals. "Elsewhere," was partly inspired by a poem by the surrealist Belgian poet Henri Michaux called "I am writing to you from a far-off country," about a woman witnessing the end of the world. Beglarian wrote a piece for Beiser in 2006 that incorporates the poem and it turns up here. The other main influence is the Old Testament tale of Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt. Four dancers portray the stories, while Beiser speaks portions of Michaut’s text along with those of Erin Cressida Wilson. "The whole idea is of a woman who is taking destiny in her own hands,” Beiser told host Jeff Spurgeon. “It’s been a theme throughout my life, maybe because I’ve lived elsewhere.” Beiser's comment is something of an understatement. She was born in 1963 and raised in a kibbutz in Israel by a French mother and Argentinean father. She reveals that her iPod remains heavy on Middle Eastern folk tunes and songs by the Israeli singer Ofra Haza. In the WQXR Café, Beiser presented a portion of Khse Buon, by the Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung. The piece is a dark threnody drawing upon Cambodian folk melodies, sustained drones and otherworldly sounds. "He wrote this piece in the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide after the Cambodian genocide after the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy the culture,” she said. “He spent ten years trying to collect all these tunes that were lost. This was the first piece he wrote after that time.” Among Beiser’s upcoming projects is a concept album of rock songs from the 1970s, including Pink Floyd’s "Wish You Were Here." “I’m trying to do it in a different way,” she said. “It’s not going to be symphonic Pink Floyd.” Listen to Jeff Spurgeon’s full interview above. Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Wayne Shulmister and Merritt Jacobson; Text & Production: Brian Wise [...]Café Concert: Maya Beiser

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Café Concert: Classical Jam

Mon, 17 Sep 2012 16:16:51 -0400

VIDEOS: Watch Classical Jam Perform in the WQXR Cafe Many arts managers pay lip-service to the importance of bringing classical music to new audiences. Classical Jam, a freewheeling ensemble of five New York soloists and chamber players, wants to make it happen. A day after playing a set in the WQXR Café (below), the quintet traveled uptown for a free show at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center where the audience consisted of squirming toddlers, grizzled Upper West Siders and post-brunch hipsters, possibly intrigued by the group's earnest yet catchy name. The program spanned J.S. Bach, improvisation and a tribute to subway bucket drummers. The members of Classical Jam – flutist Marcos Granados, violinist Jennifer Choi, violist Cyrus Beroukhim, cellist Wendy Law and percussionist Justin Hines – met a decade ago as conservatory students (collectively they are graduates of Juilliard, the Oberlin Conservatory, Indiana University and the New England Conservatory). Law said she formed the group to bring classical music to new audiences, especially those who feel they don't identify with it. “About five or six years ago, I was just sick and tired of people telling me that classical music is dying and I thought there must be a way of trying to engage people in new ways,” she said. “It’s through how we program the music. So we thought we can compose the music ourselves, we can choose different genres of music but all under the big umbrella of classical music.” Classical Jam’s Lincoln Center concert was typical of their broad repertoire, featuring a tango by Piazzolla, a jazzy take on Bach’s The Art of Fugue, an original composition by Hines and, a particular audience-pleaser, the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 played along to a video of the shaving scene from Charlie Chaplin's film “The Great Dictator.” At a few points in the program, audience members were invited to participate, singing a theme or thwacking a drum on stage. The light educational slant comes with the territory; members of the ensemble are teaching artists at such organizations as the New York Philharmonic and the 92nd Street Y. Several pieces in Classical Jam's repertoire also feature improvisation -- usually not part of the classical musician's toolkit but in keeping with the group's founding spirit. "One of the things about Classical Jam is we’re trying to push ourselves to redefine what ‘classical’ improvisation is,” said Granados. "So we’re not jazzers but we keep on trying to find out what that means.” Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: George Wellington; Production & Text: Brian Wise frameborder="0" height="360" src="" width="640"> [...]

Café Concert: New York Polyphony

Thu, 26 Jul 2012 00:00:00 -0400

VIDEO: New York Polyphony Perform Byrd and a modern lullaby

Making recordings of quiet, spiritual music from the 16th century isn't so easy in 21st-century New York. So to record its last album, "Endbeginning," the all-male vocal ensemble New York Polyphony traveled to a medieval church in rural Lanna, Sweden. There the noise floor – the technical term for background noise – was exactly zero. In New York City, it's around 40 decibels.

“We recorded our first two CDs here and we competed constantly with New York City as you can imagine,” said Craig Phillips, the group’s bass. He remembered losing one pristine take to a car horn outside the church. The group will be going back to Sweden next January to make their next album, a program of English masses by Byrd, Plummer and Tallis.

“Don’t tell anybody because we’re still New York Polyphony,” joked Philips. “We're not Scandinavian Polyphony.”

When the ensemble came to the WQXR Café, the production team did its best to silence the station's own auditory distractions – the refrigerator ice machine, the humming of the water cooler. Despite the prosaic surroundings the ensemble evoked an otherworldly place with a program of sacred Renaissance music as well as a lullaby by Philips (“Sleep Now,” written under his pen name Alexander Craig).

This performance marked New York Polyphony’s second Café Concert and its first with a new lineup: Last fall, Geoffrey Silver, the group’s tenor since its founding in 2006, left and was replaced by the tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson (rounding out the ensemble is the countertenor Geoffrey Williams and baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert).

Below is the ensemble's performance of the Agnus Dei from William Byrd's Mass for Four Voices. The piece was composed in 1592, a time when the Catholic Mass was outlawed in England. As a result, it had to be performed in small, private settings. The café may not be such a stretch after all.

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text & production: Brian Wise

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Café Concert: New York Polyphony

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Café Concert: James Ehnes

Sun, 15 Jul 2012 21:25:11 -0400

VIDEO: James Ehnes Plays Bach's Third Partita How does he do it? That’s the inside joke, the company line, the way many deal with a normal guy like James Ehnes doing abnormal things like performing concertos with major orchestras, starting a string quartet, the Ehnes Quartet, and taking over this summer as artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. And he proposed to his now-wife at a New York Philharmonic concert several years ago while TV cameras rolled. How does he do it? "A lot of times there’s a very distinct difference between someone’s professional life and their personal life,” Ehnes, 36, told host Naomi Lewin. “When we get up on stage as musicians there’s a certain performance aspect of that. Off the stage, apart from a few serious divas that seem to affect the perception for everyone, musicians are such regular people.” The Seattle Times recently wrote that Ehnes "came off as such a regular, affable fellow that his pyrotechnic talents on the violin were almost shocking in their wizardry." Born in Manitoba, Canada, the son of a trumpet professor and dance school director, Ehnes began playing violin at age four. By the time he graduated from the Juilliard School in 1997 he had already released his first recording, of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, for Telarc. Another two dozen recordings followed, including his latest, a collection of violin and piano pieces by Bartok. One of Ehnes’s calling cards is the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the most popular violin concerto around after the Brahms Concerto. Ehnes notes that while it was considered unplayable after it was written in 1878, today it’s a “rite of passage” for every violinist, and he’s played it since age 13. "Sometimes one’s interpretation of a piece develops but often for me, the way I feel about a piece stays the same but I’m different and so my interpretation is different,” he explained. “It’s a funny thing. I can listen to old tapes of myself. I think, ‘that’s me, but that’s who I used to be.’ It’s like an old photograph. Even though I feel the same way about a piece, my way of getting it out is going to be fundamentally different.” Ehnes performs the Tchaikovsky with the New York Philharmonic on Monday night in Central Park, followed by an appearance in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx on Tuesday (WQXR will broadcast that concert on Thursday). The parks concerts hold a special place in Ehnes's life: he proposed to his then-girlfriend Kate following his 2003 Central Park performance. They married the next summer and recently had their first child. Ehnes recalled the moment: “I did some ring shopping that day. I called my friend at the Philharmonic and said, ‘I have this idea that I want to propose to Kate tonight.’ I hadn’t seen the setup yet. He said, ‘oh yeah, there’s this spot off the side of the stage under some trees. It’s very beautiful. You get a view of the skyline to the south.’” He popped the question just as a camera from NY1 was rolling nearby, and th[...]

Café Concert: Avi Avital

Wed, 13 Jun 2012 14:02:04 -0400

VIDEO: Avi Avital plays in the WQXR Café When you think mandolin, bluegrass pickers and old-timey music frequently comes to mind – Bill Monroe, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas or Chris Thile. But when Avi Avital sat down to play in the WQXR Café, the sounds of a Bach cello suite filled the air. Then came the strong mournful strains of Ernest Bloch's Nigun, a variation on an ancient Hebrew melody written for the violin. For self-identified traditionalists of either camp – classical music or the mandolin – it's a bit of a visual and aural shock to the system. But consider that the mandolin has long had a place in classical music, from Vivaldi's concertos to music by Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and Schoenberg, among other composers. And Avital is no traditionalist. Born in 1978 in Beersheba, a town in southern Israel, Avital is the son of Moroccan parents who immigrated to the country in the 1960s. At age eight, he heard a neighbor play the mandolin and soon convinced his mother to sign him up for lessons. His first teacher was Simcha Nathanson, a Soviet violinist who had a second career as a mandolin instructor in Israel. He started a youth mandolin orchestra which, by the time Avital joined, was 40 members strong and had two recordings to its name. “This bizarre story of a violin teacher coming to a little town in the 1970s, starting a mandolin orchestra and teaching the mandolin was always kind of an advantage for me,” said Avital. “We never looked at the mandolin as just a mandolin so we never thought of it as a limited instrument.”   But after Avital graduated from the Jerusalem Music Academy, he realized that needed to expand his horizons. “I asked myself, ‘can I call myself a mandolinist without really going to Italy and searching for the origins and playing some of the original repertoire and looking into the instrument’s history?’” After military service, Avital headed to Italy, where he studied with Ugo Orlandi at the Conservatorio Cesare Pollini of Padova. Avital went back to basics, learning "all the techniques and original repertoire" and even switching from an Israeli-made instrument to an Italian one. But a pure focus on the Baroque mandolin repertoire wasn’t going to satisfy Avital either. He knew that to build a career for himself he’d need to branch out. He eventually wound up in Berlin, absorbing its eclectic arts scene while splitting his time between concertos with orchestras, recitals and collaborations like the Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project. In 2006, he commissioned Avner Dorman's Mandolin Concerto, which was nominated for a Grammy Award and has evolved into his signature work. This month, he releases his debut on Deutsche Grammophon, an unusual recording of transcriptions of Bach's concertos for violin, flute and oboe. “The nice thing about being a mandolin player is the path I'm walking on is being constructed while I walk on it,” said Avital. “I’m trying a lot of different styles. I enjoy very much playing with orchestras. I [...]Café Concert: Avi Avital

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Café Concert: Michael Slattery

Wed, 16 May 2012 17:32:39 -0400

Video: Michael Slattery and Todd Almond play Dowland

John Dowland is often considered the pinnacle of refined Elizabethan music. He artfully combined melancholy lyrics with dance rhythms that showed off his instrument, the lute. Modern British musicians have claimed him as their own, from Benjamin Britten to Sting.

But there is a bit of research suggesting that Dowland was actually born in Ireland, enough to have inspired the young tenor Michael Slattery to dream up "Dowland in Dublin," a provocative recording in which the composer's art songs are retooled to suggest Irish fiddle tunes.

Whether or not he was born near Dublin, as one theory goes, or Westminster, England, "he did have some very close connections to Ireland," noted Slattery, an American of Irish descent. "He was a Roman Catholic, he had an honorary degree from Trinity College and he dedicated a song in his collection, A Pilgrim's Solace, to a merchant of Dublin in Ireland, referring to him as 'my loving countryman.' He also came from an Irish family."

In reworking the songs, Slattery and the Canadian early music ensemble La Nef found another historical precedent: just as Irish fiddle tunes from the early 17th century were left as skeletal melodies (and not orchestrated), so too were some of Dowland's songs. By forgoing formal accompaniments, it is possible to consider how a traditional Irish session player would approach these songs.

In the WQXR Café, Slattery and pianist/arranger Todd Almond retooled "His Golden Locks" for upright piano and the Indian shruti box.

"The thing is, John Dowland is so beautifully composed you don't really need to do anything to it at all," said Slattery. "But, I've always felt there's such perfection to his orchestrations that sometimes [singers] can't get beyond the formality of it. Some of his songs have not really had the opportunity to be treated as folk songs even though they are well-suited to that treatment."

Does this unorthodox approach bother hardline early-music purists? In a word, yes. "It's funny, it's still a controversial thing to do."

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: George Wellington; Production/text: Brian Wise


Café Concert: Steven Isserlis

Wed, 09 May 2012 16:59:51 -0400

VIDEOS: Steven Isserlis plays Tsintsadze and Kabalevsky Steven Isserlis, the English cellist and a guest in the WQXR Café, said that he’d like to write a book about what it’s like to be a professional musician. He's not the first with that idea but one expects he’d have a lot to say. Isserlis can wax lyrically about the joys of playing the Beethoven cello sonatas, the religiosity he finds in the cello music of Bach, and why a rarity like Kabalevsky's Second Cello Concerto is "a real winner of a piece." A prolific writer whose output includes two children's books, Isserlis blogs on such diverse topics as Hitler's musical tastes and Victorian literature. A fan of the Beatles, he is an acquaintance of Paul McCartney and styles his hair not unlike the Fab Four once did. In conversation Isserlis is as witty and opinionated as his writing, as spirited and assured as his musical performance. Isserlis is most animated when talking about Beethoven, a composer he resisted for the first half of his career. Five years ago, he dove in with a day-long Beethoven marathon at the Wigmore Hall. This week, he performs more Beethoven with fortepianist Robert Levin over four programs at the 92nd St. Y. Further Beethoven cycles are planned this year in San Francisco and Tokyo, as well as a recording with Levin. "I had this resistance to Beethoven and I don’t know why,” Isserlis told Naomi Lewin. “It’s the most wonderful, life-enhancing music. You resist it and then you give into it. It just takes you over. It’s a very important part of my life now.” Isserlis’s late-life conversion seems to mirror a similar decision to record the Bach cello suites in 2007 – some three decades into his career. The Bach album earned much critical acclaim. "It’s like some women never feel ready to have babies and then there comes a time,” he said. “I finally got up my courage to do it.” The decision came with some encouragement from his then-90-year-old father. "It was really what kicked me into the studio,” said Isserlis. “He came and sat in the studio when I recorded the Sixth Suite, which was his favorite.” Isserlis was born into a musical family in London (his parents and two sisters are musicians). At 14, he moved to Scotland where he studied with Jane Cowan, a revered cello teacher who had students read Goethe's Faust because she thought it would help them play Beethoven better. In the mid 1970s he studied at Oberlin College Conservatory in Ohio. His big breakthrough came in 1989, when composer John Tavener wrote The Protecting Veil for him, which became one of the major cello works of the late 20th century. Now 53, does Isserlis ever tire of the touring treadmill, with orchestras asking for the same limited bunch of concertos? "Audiences do come for famous pieces,” he acknowledges. But he quickly insists that he has struck a healthy balance. “I can’t imagine ever getting tired of Elgar, Dvorak or Schumann, because[...]Café Concert: Steven Isserlis

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Café Concert: Nathan Gunn

Wed, 02 May 2012 12:48:25 -0400

VIDEO: Nathan Gunn sings Kurt Weill You’ve encountered the scene in countless cartoons and comedies: an opera singer lets loose an earthshaking high note and champagne flutes shatter, monocles crack and the chandelier explodes as the power of his or her voice wreaks havoc on the concert hall. Whether or not this parody is really based on reality, listeners in the WQXR Café said they half expected to see a shattered glass or two when Nathan Gunn performed the music of Kurt Weill recently. Gunn unleashed his full, rich baritone with a stadium-filling sound but he also filled the room without overwhelming it. It's all a process of ongoing calibration, he explained afterwards. "The venues that I usually sing in are usually so big that there’s never any big in it. It’s just audible,” he said. “So for me to be able to make big is fun.”  Gunn added that he and his pianist, Julie Gunn (who is also his wife), will sometimes transpose down a piece to a lower key for smaller spaces, a common practice that takes some of the edge off the sound. Conversely, some keys just yield a stronger effect. "The reason why I think a lot of the opera arias were written in the keys that they were is because you use that higher part of your register, it’s louder,” he noted. “It’s just more audible." These days, Gunn, 42, can be heard in venues of all sizes, from the War Memorial in San Francisco (3,146 seats) and New York's Metropolitan Opera House (3,800 seats) to the intimate Café Carlyle, where he sang a three-week cabaret run last year. His versatility means he can sound comfortable in roles like the Count in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Lancelot in Camelot as well as the title character in Britten’s Billy Budd, a signature role that he performs at the Met this month (his 2009 recording of the opera with the London Symphony Orchestra won a Grammy). As much Gunn's his voice has received acclaim, opera fans have frequently made note of his dapper appearance, which earned him a place in People magazine’s “sexiest men alive” issue in 2008 (he shared the honors with Gordon Ramsay and Todd Palin, among others). It was Gunn's famously shirtless production of Iphigenie en Tauride at Glimmerglass Opera in 1997 that helped to set off a new breed of baritone known as the “barihunk." Opera directors have capitalized on this fact ever since. Still, Gunn is more likely to be found rehearsing and teaching than posing for any calendars: both he and his wife are on the music faculty at the University of Illinois, where they teach voice and accompaniment, respectively. After the Café Concert, the couple chatted with WQXR staff members about the nuances of piano timbres and improvisation. Below watch the Gunns’ performance of “This is the Life,” from the 1948 musical Love Life, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner: Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Production & Tex[...]

Café Concert: Tim Fain

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 17:18:48 -0400

VIDEO: Tim Fain Performs Philip Glass's Partita Few violinists can claim to be film stars. Jascha Heifetz had a few roles in the 1930s and 40s. Joshua Bell was a body double in “The Red Violin," from 1999. Tim Fain is a violinist who has had an actual on-screen role, and accompanying Natalie Portman no less, in the 2010 thriller "Black Swan." The intense, dance-rehearsal scene featured Portman (and her body double) dancing to Fain’s performance of a Bach partita and a version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (his left hand even gets an extended close-up shot). Fain told the assembled audience at his WQXR Café Concert that he repeated the scene some 60 times, as director Darren Aronofsky captured every possible angle. “What you see me playing on screen is what you hear in most instances,” he explained. “What we did on that was we filmed 20 rehearsal takes and 20 more takes with Natalie's double and then at the end of the day it was 'let's get everybody off the set here and just record music.' So we'd have a few times in the space while we have it fresh right there. It ended up sounding good enough that we'd use it right in the movie.” Fain grew up in Los Angeles, studied violin at the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School, and won an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Before "Black Swan" he was featured as the violin double for Richard Gere in the 2005 family-in-crisis drama "Bee Season." "Richard Gere knew his stuff, which is not surprising,” noted Fain. “He actually called me off on one little place where I was using a little more vibrato in my performance than he was doing on screen.” Fain got the "Black Swan" gig thanks to his friendship with Benjamin Millepied, who served as the movie's choreographer; Fain was an on-stage violinist in the 2005 New York City Ballet piece "Double Aria," which Millepied choreographed. The choreographer worked with Fain on the violinist’s latest project too, a multimedia violin recital called "Portals," with which he is currently touring (it comes to the Copland House in Mount Kisco on May 20). Billed as a "musical exploration of the human longing for connection in the digital age," it blends films by Kate Hackett, a piano accompaniment by Nicholas Britell, and readings by Fred Child of some of Leonard Cohen’s poems. At the center of "Portals" is Philip Glass's Partita for Solo Violin. Fain performed the 35-minute work at the Met Museum on April 21 (Q2 Music has a stream of the performance), and he presented a portion of it in the WQXR Café. "We worked so intensely on the piece to get it just so,” he said of his collaboration with Glass. “Now it feels like it fits my hands so wonderfully.” Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Production & Text: Brian Wise [...]

Café Concert: Quartet New Generation

Wed, 18 Apr 2012 13:05:03 -0400

ViDEO: Quartet New Generation Plays the Clockwork Toccata

Remember recorders? Those long plastic tubes with eight holes in them that can grate on a listener's ears after minimal milliseconds? That, at least, is one view of the instruments that are handed out in elementary schools, and used more for teaching kids about music than producing beautiful sounds.

The fact is, there are virtuoso recorder ensembles, among them, the Quartet New Generation (QNG), from Berlin. The all-female quartet plays on around 40 different types of recorders -- ranging from a few centimeters in length to over six feet tall. Their repertoire runs the gamut: Renaissance and Baroque dances, arrangements of Bruckner and Shostakovich, avant-garde theater pieces by living composers.

In the WQXR Café, the ensemble played Fulvio Caldini's Clockwork Toccata, a buoyant minimalist jigsaw puzzle reminiscent of Steve Reich. QNG member Susanne Fröhlich admitted that not every composer is so naturally adept at writing for the ensemble. "It’s a big challenge to write for our instrument because there is not so much original literature," she said. "Composers have to be really flexible and really open to listen to everything we show."

The QNG began in 1998 as an ad-hoc student group at the Amsterdam Conservatory. The members, all from Germany and Austria, clicked and they soon began winning chamber-music competitions, like the Concert Artists Guild prize in New York. They built a particular niche on the new-music circuit, appearing on the 2010 Bang on a Can Marathon and at the MATA Festival this week in New York. They've also cultivated a outre image, with glamorous press photos and theatrical pieces like Chiel Meijering's Cybergirls Go Extreme (played with colorful wigs and robotic dance moves). 

Despite these achievements, concert venues don't always know what to expect. "We have a range of 40 instruments with us," said Fröhlich. "The smallest is about half a foot and then we have a recorder that’s about six-and-a-half-feet tall."

"When presenters book us and think about a recorder quartet they think about four or eight instruments," added QNG member Heide Schwartz. "When they pick us up with a car sometimes it’s a little problem. Then we have to go twice or some of us have to walk and we put the luggage in the car."

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise

Café Concert: Alexandre Tharaud

Thu, 12 Apr 2012 15:47:43 -0400

VIDEO: Alexandre Tharaud plays Clément Doucet's Chopinata

When classical composers explore jazz, it is sometimes portrayed as a form of musical dress-up. Think of the jazz-tinged classical pieces of the 1920s: Ravel's Violin Sonata, Stravinsky's Ragtime, Milhaud's La creation du monde. But some historians and musicians increasingly believe that genuine creative fusions emerged from this era, many of which have yet to be discovered by a larger audience.

Alexandre Tharaud, a French pianist, has a particular fascination with the music that was performed at Le Boeuf Sur le Toit, a Right Bank cabaret founded by Jean Cocteau and Louis Moysés in 1921. It became the epicenter of cabaret society during the 1920s and a haunt for jazz musicians and classical composers. One could hear the pianist Jean Wiéner playing Bach, Clément Doucet vamping through Cole Porter, or Marianne Oswald singing the songs of Kurt Weill. Serge Diaghilev and Maurice Chevalier were regulars at the bar.

“From the opening night and many years, you could hear jazz in this cabaret-bar,” Tharaud explained. “They were long concerts – four or five hours all night.” In the WQXR Café, Tharaud opted for something more concise. He played Chopinata, one of several clever jazz tributes to classical works that Doucet wrote during this period.

All too often, this is music that gives classical pianists awful headaches as they struggle to deny all their training and play off the beat. But for Tharaud, a sense of swing may be in the genes. The pianist says his grandfather was a violinist who played both classical and jazz in Parisian concert halls and clubs during the 1920s.

This fall, Tharaud will release a recording devoted to music from the heyday of Le Boeuf Sur le Toit. He'll also perform a recital of more traditional piano literature on Carnegie Hall’s Distinctive Debuts series. For a pianist whose career has been centered mainly in Europe, and has recorded a series of major-label albums from Scarlatti and Bach to Chopin, Tharaud may be a revelation for New Yorkers.

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Interview: Terrance McKnight; Production & Text: Brian Wise

Café Concert: So Percussion

Thu, 22 Mar 2012 17:20:20 -0400

VIDEO: So Percussion Plays Music by Cage and Treuting

Seashells have been used as musical instruments for many hundreds if not thousands of years. The Triton shell ("Triton's trumpet") serves as a trumpet in Melanesian and Polynesian culture. The Queen Conch has a flugelhorn-like effect in music of the West Indies.

The composer John Cage had a rather different idea for the humble shell. His 1976 work Inlet consists of the amplified sound of water being sloshed around in several conch shells of different sizes, some quite massive, others merely palm-sized. A tape of burning pine cones is heard in the background. At one point a performer blows into a conch shell which sounds something like a foghorn.

Musicians from the Brooklyn quartet So Percussion brought this otherworldly work to the WQXR Café recently, making ample use of our water cooler and instilling a certain Zenlike coolness in the room. Inlets was one of a handful of ecological pieces Cage wrote in the seventies, others being Child of Tree (1975), which calls for the amplification of a potted plant, and Il Treno (1978) for "prepared trains."

Cage, who was a devotee of the percussion family and dedicated his career to challenging the very notion of what music is, will be the focus of So Percussion’s concert at Zankel Hall on Monday night.

The program is part of a series of concerts the percussion group is giving around the world to mark the 100th anniversary of Cage's birth. Among the pieces it is touring is 24 x 24 by member Jason Treuting, which echoes Cage's extravagant pots-and-pans sound collages with a variety of instrumental and spoken sounds.

"If you think of Haydn as the grandfather of the string quartet, for us, we think of Cage as the grandfather of the percussion tradition," said member Adam Sliwinski on WNYC's Soundcheck. Considering his eccentric reputation, Sliwinski added: "If you're a percussionist, Cage is your old master, which is a funny word to apply to a guy like him."


Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise

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Café Concert: Ryu Goto

Wed, 14 Mar 2012 17:53:28 -0400

VIDEO: Ryu Goto Plays Kreisler and Ÿsaye in the WQXR Café Ryu Goto opened his Café Concert with Fritz Kreisler's Liebesleid (Love's Sorrow), a bittersweet waltz that evokes a kind of aristocratic grace from another era. But Goto is hardly a violinist stuck in the past. As he launched into his second piece, Ÿsaye’s Sonata No. 6, he seemed to adopt a martial arts-like stance in his posture – a byproduct his years of training towards a black belt in karate. “It’s probably influenced by karate,” the 23-year-old violinist acknowledged. While avoiding finger injuries, Goto said karate has provided him with a necessary sense of balance and "mental maintenance." Having a well-rounded childhood was key for an artist who hails from a kind of classical royalty. The son of two violinists, Goto was born in New York and began playing at age three. His teachers included violinists Yoko Takebe (the mother of Alan Gilbert), Cho-Liang Lin, and his own mother, who remains an active presence in his career. His sister is Midori, the celebrated violinist who rose to child stardom in the 1980s. Goto’s burgeoning solo career has been carefully groomed both in the U.S. and Asia, and he has been particularly active in Japan, his family’s homeland. Yet he didn’t follow the straight-and-narrow path of a child prodigy either. Instead of entering a conservatory, he studied physics at Harvard University, where he took on a full slate of extracurricular activities, including golf, lacrosse and guitar (he told one interviewer that he developed a freer style of playing by watching Jimi Hendrix). Goto admits that “my mother was much more liberal with my education like that than with my sister." At the same time, the younger Goto said he learned from watching his sister and “what it means to be a professional, what it means to be a violinist." “I got the impression that being a musician isn’t the be all and end all,” he continued. “But she’s gone above and beyond that kind of categorization. She’s become almost something more – a humanist kind of thing.” Goto alludes to his sister’s involvement with nonprofit organizations including her own Midori and Friends, a nonprofit organization providing concerts for underprivileged and hospitalized children. In 2010 Goto launched the Ryu Goto Excellence In Music Award, an annual $1000 scholarship for high school-age musicians in New York City. The program is administered with the New York City Department of Education. Does Goto ever hope to combine his background in physics with music? “I was a very bad student so I probably wouldn’t be qualified to talk about physics,” he said, laughing. But he has put his love of karate to professional use. The composer Tan Dun enlisted him as a soloist in his Martial Arts [...]Café Concert: Ryu Goto

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Café Concert: Xuefei Yang

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 17:49:41 -0500

VIDEO: Xuefei Yang performs in the WQXR Café “Piano is the most popular instrument in China because of the Lang Lang effect,” said the classical guitarist Xuefei Yang, referring to her famed pianist countryman. “But most Chinese people live in apartments where it's hard to practice the piano. The guitar is much nicer to practice in your apartment. It's compact." Yang's belief in the guitar isn't merely pragmatic but inspired by a broader sense of purpose. “I feel it’s important for the guitar to get involved in the main musical family. Classical guitar is a little bit on the edge of the music family.” As a proselytizer for her instrument, Yang has work to do. Part of the classical guitar's legitimacy problem lies in its limited repertory. While the piano and violin have centuries of music at their disposal, the first concerto for guitar, by Mario Castenuovo-Tedesco, dates only from 1939. Rodrigo's famous Concierto de Aranjuez from 1940 has become the most performed concerto of the 20th century, but still, one can only hear the Rodrigo so many times. Hence Yang’s latest album, a collection of transcriptions of J.S. Bach, which includes two of his violin concertos, the harpsichord concerto in D minor, and three short solo pieces. Yang said the recording was born out of her desire to expand the Baroque repertoire beyond a few Vivaldi lute pieces. "I really wanted to play something substantial,” she said. “So I found the violin concerto scores and I found they’re very playable on the guitar.” Bach himself was arguably the greatest transcriber of all time -- of others' music as well as his own. Yang still had her doubts as to whether she could master these virtuosic concertos but “my strong desire play them helped me to overcome the difficulty.” She teamed up with the Elias String Quartet, deciding that a string quartet would better balance with her instrument’s relatively soft sound than an orchestra. The Beijing native was born in 1977, just as the Cultural Revolution had come to an end. She was the first guitarist in China to enter a music school (the Beijing Central Conservatory) and, according to her biography, the first to launch an international professional career. Yang went on to win a scholarship to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music and since graduating in 2002 she has released six studio albums (including five for EMI) and spent much of her time on the road touring. Her performance in the WQXR café is a snapshot of her expansive interests, incorporating an arrangement of a work for pipa (Huiran Wang’s Yi Dance) and a tango-flavored piece (Tango en Skaï by Roland Dyens). Yang hopes she help inspire more young people in China to take up the guitar. “We Chinese believe in the 30-year cycle[...]

Café Concert: Brentano String Quartet

Wed, 15 Feb 2012 15:18:39 -0500

VIDEO: The Brentano Quartet Plays Schubert and Adolph Franz Schubert's short, hectic life was full of "what ifs" -- unfinished sketches, abandoned works and fragmentary thoughts. Many of these leftovers were quite extraordinary despite their obvious limitations. Among them is the Quartettsatz in C minor, a piece whose first movement Schubert completed in 1820 but whose Andante he abandoned for unknown reasons. Sensing its value, the Brentano String Quartet commissioned the New York composer Bruce Adolph to write a response in his own style, and he responded with Fra(nz)g-mentation, a dense yet witty homage to the original. During a recent visit to New York the Brentano played the two works back to back in the WQXR Cafe. “This Quartettsatz is a piece we’ve played a lot and really love,” explained Mark Steinberg, the Brentano’s first violinist. “We wondered a lot why he didn’t finish the quartet because I think it’s as great as the other late quartets. Then I found out he had started a second movement and I thought it would be so nice to play that in a concert and give this piece the kind of scope that another Schubert quartet might have.” Steinberg and his fellow quartet-mates didn’t want to ask a living composer to simply mimic Schubert, so they asked Adolph to write music in his own style that would "make the piece more complete in a sense." The commission became the backbone of "Fragments," a project celebrating the Brentano’s 20th anniversary season, which runs through 2012. Along with Schubert, the group took abandoned pieces by Bach, Shostakovich, Haydn and Mozart, and commissioned several composers to write individual responses to them. Along with Adolphe, Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison, Stephen Hartke and Vijay Iyer contribute to the project, joining an older work by Sofia Gubaidulina. “We really wanted to create a dialogue between the past and the present and that’s a major theme of the program,” said Steinberg. Several venues contributed to the commissioning project, including Carnegie Hall, where the Brentano will perform the pieces over two concerts, the first taking place on Thursday night. “Fragments” is just the latest in a series of grand conceptual projects that the Brentano have undertaken over the quartet’s 20-year history, including “Bach Perspectives,” a 2003 venture in which they commissioned 10 contemporary composers to write responses to Bach's magisterial Art of Fugue. Steinberg believes that by pairing new and old pieces, the quartet can help provide context for seemingly foreign contemporary sounds. “The variety of styles that’s around right now makes it difficult to get inside the language of one composer if you don’t know them well,” he[...]Café Concert: Brentano String Quartet

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