The Short Version: There's Hommage, and Then There's Oh, Man!

Awhile back, in the classical world, it seemed as popular as “Six Degrees of . . .” That is, finding references to, gestures toward, downright quotations of classical pieces showing up in film scores and popular music. Flattering for the masters, really, and a sign of good taste on the part of the “samplers.” A number of the most famous examples involved scores by John Williams. Not this one.

For your consideration, a theme which, after tryouts on the Castilian high plain, went straight to Broadway.

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Learning to Listen at Classical MPR

I can’t tell you how often I meet someone who wants to learn more about classical music. Usually, this revelation stems from their discovery of where I work; and, more specifically, what I do for where I work.

After meeting a few hundred people (or so) who wish they knew more about classical music, I thought, “Let’s teach them.”

“Learning to Listen” was born. A series of six free classes over the course of four months, held here at Minnesota Public Radio in the Maud Moon Weyerhaeuser studio, led by hosts of Classical MPR. The first class is Tuesday, March 1st from 7-8:30 p.m.

It’s an opportunity to fill in the gaps of your knowledge of classical music. And if you have no knowledge at all, come to the first session, listen, and learn.

Our first session (Tuesday, 3/1) starts at the beginning, or as close as we can come to it. For centuries, not much happened. But then the French started writing secular music and the Germans followed their lead. The musicians for Notre Dame Cathedral started taking more liberties with their sacred works. After a couple hundred years and a handful of historically significant events, the Reformation rocked Europe. Then the Church of England split (for the first time).

All of these events drastically changed the landscape and course of classical music, and as exciting as it is to discuss, it’s even more exciting to hear. Come, listen, and learn.

The classes are free, but please register here in advance.

The Short Version: The Very Model of the Very Model

Not even the most ingenious imaginations operate in a vacuum. They’re in the world, and their achievements often hang on how well they transform the fodder of history, gossip, or the headlines. William Gilbert, for instance (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), found inspiration for one of his most memorable characters in reports of a busy and blustery soldier serving the Empire.

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Landing in Liszt

This is Liszt’s 200th birthday year–and here’s news that Hungary’s main airport may soon be renamed in his honor.

I hadn’t been aware of airports named in honor of classical musicians, but a little online digging reveals that they do exist, and mostly in Central Europe. Travelers in the US may fly into O’Hare and Kennedy, but over there you can fly into Chopin, Mozart, and Janacek.

We’re having a terrific member drive—thanks for your contributions!

What's cool about Cantus

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I have the best job ever. I took a road-trip up north to Ely to introduce our Artists-in-Residence Cantus at an MPR concert at Vermillion College.

This was a much-anticipated event last weekend and the boys did not disappoint. Their singing was superb, the repertoire making us laugh and then weep and then clap with gusto.

But for me personally it was a kick to get to know these guys a bit better. For starters, they invited me to be a part of their pre-concert huddle. This is serious stuff, folks. Paul Rudoi reminded his fellow tenors to follow the pitch set by the basses and Tim Takach emphasized the order of songs. It was so fun to be in on the preparation. Alas, I’m only an honorary huddler and won’t get to audition!

The concert itself was marvelous. The music touches the soul, but the guys are down-to-earth and accessible, they had the crowd whooping and hollering for an encore.

I interrupted a few times for a little Q&A during the concert, and these respectful, articulate young men obliged me, making me sound very smart with questions I’m sure they get asked over and over.

The highlight was the after-party at Dee’s. We crammed into a couple of booths and I got more of the Cantus back-story. As the bar filled up with locals and the live band got in full swing, Adam and Gary joined them to sing a couple of songs.

It was all spontaneous and they’re such pros, the dance floor soon filled up – everyone was dancing including a couple of the men of Cantus along with this Classical MPR host.

What fun being one of the guys! Join us later this month in St. Peter.

The Short Version: Mencken's Number One

We’ve been asking you to weigh in on your top 10 composers (find the polling place at classicalmpr.org, open till Friday afternoon). If the redoubtable writer and critic (and music lover) H.L. Mencken hadn’t lived and died in a staunchly analog age, he would have logged on and let us know (with trenchant notes) what he thought.

I can’t presume to report how Mencken would have voted numbers 10 to 2, but he gave strong hints about #1.

Here’s the Short Version:

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The Short Version: Plan B for Berlioz

The Renaissance goldsmith and adventurer Benvenuto Cellini may have been the godfather of self-promotion and celebrity culture. His famous autobiography gilded his exploits and shocked with its frankness.

French composer Hector Berlioz thought Cellini’s life would make a blockbuster opera. When audiences yawned, Berlioz regrouped, and refashioned themes from the Cellini opera into one of his most popular works.

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From the Road: Cantus Sings in the Soudan Mine

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It’s not often that you get to see someplace as cool as the Soudan Underground Mine. And it’s really not often that you get to witness a private concert performed at the 27th level of the mine, 2,341 feet below the surface. On a clear, brutally cold February afternoon the Classical MPR crew met up with their Artists-in-Residence, Cantus, and took the three-minute, pitch-black ride down to the comfortable 51-degree depths to make just that event happen.

Accessing one of the richest deposits of iron ore in the world, the mine sits just up the hill from the sleepy town of Soudan, Minnesota, just between Virginia and Ely.

The Classical MPR crew arrived early, winding past “Soudan’s Only Store” towards Mine Road. A short jaunt up slippery hills, and we were at the surface of the old mine, inactive as a production mine since 1962.

There wasn’t really much mine to see at the top. A few beautiful old buildings housing the giant engines and 3/4 of a mile of steel cables, a warming house (now visitor center), and the powerful A-Frame. The frame, covered in mid-winter ice, straddles the relatively small shafts that lead down, offering leverage to move the lift cars to the appropriate level.

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Our guide, James, helped us load into one of the old cars, packing everything, including people, into 2 closet sized cages, one on top of the other.

With a few beeps to the engine house on the communicator, we started to drop.

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Without James shining his head lamp out at the mine shaft walls there would have been no light at all. The noise was impressive – a constant, roaring clang that was so loud that James had to yell to tell us to pop our ears from the pressure change by pretending we were chewing gum.

After a 3 minute ride, we reached the 27th level at an impressive depth of 2,341 feet.

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Another 5 minutes on an old mine train (think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – just the song that Cantus sang on their trip in an hour later) we arrived at the stope, the part of the mine last worked in 1962 when the mine was shut down.

We grabbed our gear, and started to set up.

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Rob, our audio engineer, set up a DTS surround sound rig to capture the unique sounds of both Cantus and the mine.

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Upon arrival, Cantus started to warm-up, setting in frantic flight a single bat who stayed with us through the rest of the recording session. We also had the company of some of the Soudan Underground Mine employees who made the train ride out to see the performance.

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We spent several hours underground with Cantus singing several pieces – including Dave Matthews’ “Gravedigger” and old (appropriate for the setting) union songs. The audio and video will both be available on the Sonic Architecture section of the Classical MPR Artist-in-Residence page.

After our thank you’s to our gracious hosts at the Soudan Mine, we headed into Ely and made straight for dinner.

In true romantic February form, Cantus member Adam Reinwald and his wife, Trisha, our companion in the mines, shared a plate of pasta. As soon as it was set on the table they were promptly regaled by the remaining members of Cantus with This is the Night, the pasta “kissing” song from Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp. The perfect end to an amazing session.

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Next Year's Super Bowl Anthem

I think there’s probably been more than enough criticism of Christina Aguilera’s rendition of the National Anthem at Sunday’s Super Bowl. Perhaps we should move on, and look ahead to next year.

Super Bowl XLVI is in Indianapolis, February 5th, 2012. Nearby is the renowned Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington. I would suggest the NFL go local and look no further than right there for their anthem performer(s).

I offer just a partial list of potential performers with ties to the Jacobs School at IU, either as a student, graduate, faculty member, or combination:

Joshua Bell, violinist

Sylvia McNair, soprano

Chris Botti, jazz trumpeter

Edgar Meyer, bassist

Jorja Fleezanis, violinist (former Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster!)

Andre Watts, pianist

Jaime Laredo, violinist/conductor

Leonard Slatkin, conductor

And believe me, that’s only a partial list. Surely the NFL could come up with someone (or even better, a combination of people) from this group. C’mon NFL….go local next year!