"Playing Viola Was My Ticket out of Poverty"

This month and next, MPR is organizing a used-instrument drive, getting old instruments out of attics and into the hands of kids. Our listeners have been contributing their own stories about their early involvement with musical instruments, and there are more attention-getting quotes than you can shake a flugelhorn at, including the headline up at the top. Consider:

“A spiritual quest of sorts”

“I was a dweeby nerd”

“I was so bad at first that. . . .”

“Band was the reason I continued my education”

But you can read the complete stories here, and also learn how to participate.

Villazon Is Back; RIP Blanche Thebom and Susana Walton

Some classical news stories from the last few days:

Rolando Villazon, whose vocal problems had forced him to take a hiatus, is back –triumphantly back–on the opera stage.

Blanche Thebom, the American mezzo, is dead at 91. She may be most remembered for participating in the classic Wilhelm Furtwangler recording of Wagner’s Tristan, where she took on the secondary, but indispensable role of Isolde’s lady-in-waiting.

Let’s also note the passing of Lady Susana Walton, widow of composer William Walton. After her husband’s death, she devoted herself to the spectacular gardens at their home in Italy–check out these photos.

Two days to learn new role – no probs!

Soprano Marlis Peterson had two days to learn a new role for the Met’s new production of Thomas’ “Hamlet.”

Natalie Dessay was scheduled to play Ophelia and dropped out at the last minute. Marlis was already singing in Vienna, so had to show up in New York for a crash course.

She got rave reviews – you can hear her performance with the Met Opera broadcast this Saturday at noon on Classical MPR.

Dr. James Black: Saving Lives, and Saving Symphonies

The New York Times says “[His] discoveries are considered among the most important medical advances in the 20th century, and the drugs have been among the most prescribed in the world.”

Nobel Prize-winning pharmacologist Dr. James Black died March 22, at age 85.

He developed two of the world’s most important medicines – H2 antagonists, used for treating gastric ulcers, and beta-blockers, effective against heart disease.

But there’s more to beta-blockers than heart disease. They’re also widely used by professional musicians for treating symptoms of stage fright. A survey by the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra Musicians revealed that 27% of the musicians in the 51 largest orchestras in the United States had used beta blockers for performance anxiety related issues.

In 2004, the New York Times reported on this phenomenon, with stories from many distinguished musicians who find beta-blockers to be an invaluable tool in an extremely high-stress profession where missed notes can cost you your job.

So next time you’re at a symphony orchestra concert, enjoying a highly polished, musical performance, there’s a good chance that some of the credit goes to Dr. James Black.

Awesome Jelloslave

Last night it was the Bach Birthday Bash at the Dakota and we heard three spectacular sets – a wonderful couple of Bach Society harpsichordists, followed by the transcendent Matt Haimovitz and then a quartet new to me, Jelloslave.

This group really rocked out – it’s two classically-trained cellists, drums and tabla. A couple of highlights were a Bach/George Harrison suite, a piece by Bach-contemporary Turlough O’Carolan, a Bach Invention that morphed into Jimi Hendrix, plus a few tunes from their newest disc “Purple Orange” coming out in few weeks.

Their music is a kind of mesmerizing mix of dance and improvisation and the drums never completely take over the sound. They just give the whole feel a great rhythm and synergy. They played late into the night, but kept me wanting more.

Sticky melodies

Why is it that I oftentimes immediately forget the name of someone who has just introduced themselves to me, but not for love or money get a commercial jingle out of my head?

A recent Q&A on the New York Times website points to the success of “earworms.” It’s “music characterized by simplicity, repetitiveness and incongruity with listeners’ expectations is most likely to become ‘stuck.’ ”

Good news for advertisers I would think!

The Greatest Orchestra in the World

You may have heard us congratulating the Minnesota Orchestra for their fabulous review in this week’s New Yorker.

Music critic Alex Ross wrote about the large number of different orchestras which had performed in Carnegie Hall recently, and concluded the piece with this bold statement:

For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.

You can read the whole piece here.

Confessions of a Drum Dork

When Jauvon Gilliam heard that the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., was looking for a new timpanist, he wanted that job. Bad.

So on the 26-hour drive from Winnipeg, he called up other professional timpanists along the way and asked to play for them, so that he could get used to playing nervous and in unfamiliar settings.

The prep paid off, and he got the job. Read more about this self-identified “drum dork” and get a peek into a timpanist’s world here.