The well-tempered tablet: Esa-Pekka Salonen makes a splash as an iPad evangelist

Classical music lovers have been oohing and aahing over the new Apple campaign featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen extolling the merits of the iPad as a device for composition and music learning. An elegant TV ad shows Salonen going from a moment of musical inspiration (while shaving, no less) to a completed violin concerto, aided all along by his handy iPad.

The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross notes that “Salonen’s enthusiasm for Apple products is genuine. When I wrote a Profile of him, in 2007, I began with an extended scene at the Santa Monica Apple Store, where he demontrated how he used various kinds of software to compose. He is now being rewarded with an extraordinarily powerful platform: in less than a day, the ad racked up a hundred thousand views on YouTube, and there is an auxiliary page of videos on the Apple Web site.”

On Apple’s site, Salonen specifically enthuses over an app called The Orchestra, developed by Touch Press in collaboration with the Music Sales Group and Salonen, who conducts the several orchestral passages heard in the app — and is seen, on video in the app, doing so. I decided to give the app a try. It’s not free — in fact, it’s $9.99 — but great Gershwin’s ghost, is it ever a slick package.

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The app allows you to choose among excerpts from eight compositions, ranging chronologically from Haydn’s sixth symphony to Salonen’s own violin concerto. While you listen to each selection, you’re allowed to explore the music in several ways: you can watch a guide line run through the full score, you can listen to commentaries from Salonen and his musicians, and you can watch the dynamics of the music visualized on a map of the orchestra, over which you can run your finger to hear specific sections. Further, there are specific pages for each instrument in the orchestra; you can read about the instrument and sample its range by running your finger up and down a little keyboard. (I spent a long time banging away at the virtual timpani.)

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The Orchestra app is certainly fun to play with; how many users will really dig in and absorb all the content is an open question. It’s also unclear to what extent technology like this can help to overcome the prejudice Salonen identifies on the Apple site: “There is this idea that it’s something for old people. You have to behave in a certain way, you have to wear certain types of clothes, you have to be kind of hopelessly boring.” The Orchestra app certainly isn’t boring, but it does have more than a whiff of this-is-good-for-you about it — and the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra did wear their Sunday best to the recording sessions.

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There’s also the fact that iPads cost at least a couple hundred dollars, and the app costs ten bucks…so even with some investment by educational institutions, this technology isn’t going to break down classical music’s class barriers overnight. What it does do, though, is to give the audience an unprecedented look under the hood of a symphony orchestra, to see what marvelous complexity underlies a professional orchestra’s polished sheen.

Joyce DiDonato to aspiring artists: "The world needs you"

Joyce DiDonato (Simon Pauly)

When I spoke with Joyce Di Donato just before her last performance as Cinderella in the Met Opera production of Rossini’s, La Cenerentola on May 10, she also told me she had butterflies about her upcoming commencement address at the Juilliard School of Music on May 23. Those butterflies turned into sage advice for those young musicians, and for all of us.

On June 15, my daughter will graduate with a degree in vocal performance from the music conservatory at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. She’s on her way to pursuing her dream of becoming an opera singer. While some parents are hesitant to encourage their children to pursue the arts because it’s a long, hard, competitive road, with often little compensation, my daughter is fortunate. Her parents understand that for her, there is no other option. Since she was six years old, she’s told us singing is her passion. She can’t imagine doing anything else. She is completely committed, and we believe in her.

“We need you to make us feel an integral PART of a shared existence through the communal, universal, forgiving language of music, of dance, of poetry and Art — so that we never lose sight of the fact that we are all in this together and that we are all deserving of a life that overflows with immense possibility, improbable beauty and relentless truth.”

— Joyce DiDonato, in her address to the Juilliard School’s class of 2014

As Joyce DiDonato points out in her commencement address, the world needs my daughter, and all the artists who are committed to this journey because it’s the artists who help us remember who we really are, and that we’re all in this together.

How Maya Angelou Inspired Choral Music

Maya Angelou at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery on Saturday, April 5, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for National Portrait).

Maya Angelou, one of the most beloved African-American authors, died today at age 86. In spite of her difficult childhood, she became an award-winning writer and a leading civil-rights activist who ultimately received the 2010 Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Even facing the rockiest of realities, Maya Angelou still rose.  

This inspirational journey would later be illustrated in her poem, Still I RiseRosephanye Powell, noted choral composer, was so inspired by Dr. Angelou that she composed an original choral work based on the poem’s title. Dr. Rosephanye Powell shared this about the inspiration:

“Still I Rise was inspired by the poem of the same name by poet laureate Maya Angelou. It is a women’s anthem, saluting the strength of women to persevere through life’s difficulties — low self-esteem, physical and emotional abuse, rape, incest, prejudice, abandonment, and such like. In summary, though a woman’s life or past may be filled with tears and heartaches, with each day that she finds herself still living, she finds that she has grown stronger and risen a little higher because her circumstances have not overcome her. Thus, every new day can be one of hope and joy because regardless of the past, today, ‘still I rise’!”

Still I Rise (by Rosephanye Powell)

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One of Maya Angelou’s most famous works was her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The title of this book was inspired by the third stanza of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem Sympathy

Minneapolis-based composer Jake Runestad recently composed a choral work using Dunbar’s poem for Grammy-nominated conductor Craig Hella Johnson and Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble. Jake had this to say about Maya Angelou and Paul Lawrence Dunbar:

“In both Angelou’s powerful autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Dunbar’s poem ‘Sympathy,’ art serves as a vehicle for hope. Each artist was a caged bird in the midst of racial and social injustice and used art to both express themselves and to inspire change. Maya Angelou will continue to be an inspiration to me as someone who used art as a positive force to better our world for years to come.”

The caged bird no longer has to beat its wing; it can fly freely and sing with the thousands of spirits that were uplifted by your legacy of excellence and journey of inspiration.

On the Air This Week

Highlights from May 27 to June 3

Tuesday, 7:15 am: School Spotlight: Austin High School Wind Ensemble.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: writer Josh McCaffrey.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: School Spotlight: Austin High School Wind Ensemble.

Thursday, 3 pm hour: Regional Spotlight: Accordo and flutist Julia Bogorad-Kogan.

Saturday, noon: The Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals Concert.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: Austria Revisited.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra performs Debussy, Ravel, and Saint-Saens.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen: Music for Weddings.

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: Mozart and Enescu.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.

Click on Classical: Music in the schools…and in the stacks

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This holiday week, I’m joining John Birge on Tuesday (instead of Monday) morning at 9:15 to talk about a few stories that have recently been published on our website. Here are the stories we’ll be talking about today.

This week we published two articles about music education in Minnesota. David Lindquist profiled the Mirandola Ensemble, who were just named among Classical MPR’s Class Notes artists for the coming school year. Click here to read why the group’s Scott Sandersfeld considers kids the “ideal audience” for their Renaissance choral music. Also this week, Sheila Regan wrote about El Sistema Minnesota, the local arm of the global music education organization that originated in Venezuela. Read her post to learn how inner-city kids in Minneapolis are learning to love — and play — classical music from a very young age.

But hey, school’s out! Heading to the beach this summer and packing some books? Emily Michael, a singer and writer, suggests some very readable nonfiction books for people who love classical music. Emily’s especially interested in music and the brain, and she recommends books that get at the question of whether music is “hardwired” into our minds or whether it’s, as one scientist argues, “auditory cheesecake” that’s totally peripheral to neural functioning.

Criticizing the Critics

Mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught (photo courtesy IMG Artists)

Here’s the story that’s been tearing up the Internet in the last day or so — at least in the classical music department. It even shows up on the News Cut blog from MPR’s Bob Collins.

The Irish singer Tara Erraught recently appeared in the title role of the opera Der Rosenkavalier. As Bob notes, “five different male writers used stocky, chubby, puppy-fat, scullery maid, unsightly, and unappealing to describe her ‘performance.'”

Did the critics cross a line? Were their editors asleep at the switch? Would a male singer have been treated differently?

As this summary in The Telegraph suggests, opera singers, music writers, and the opera-loving public have not been slow to join the debate.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

On the Air This Week

Highlights from May 20 to 27

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Feature: Amanda Patton from Little Mountain Elementary.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Feature: Amanda Patton from Little Mountain Elementary.

Thursday, 3 pm hour: Regional Spotlight: early music ensemble Consortium Carissimi, from Saint Paul.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: From Colleges, Castles and Cathedrals.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: Beethoven, performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen: The Tombeau.

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Tuesday, 7:15 am: School Spotlight.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: Storyteller Josh McCaffrey.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: School Spotlight.

San Diego Opera Rides Again

If you follow the classical headlines, you might remember that earlier this year, the San Diego Opera announced that it was shutting its doors, in the face of some sobering financial figures.

Good news today: the board of the organization has rescinded that decision. More details here.

Click on Classical: The most influential film composer of our time, a royal-patron wish list, and Dylan sings Rachmaninoff

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Every Monday morning at 9:15, I join John Birge to talk about the stories on our website. Here’s what we’ll be discussing today.

When you think of movie music, names like Korngold and Hermann and Williams come to mind — but Garrett Tiedemann argues that the most influential composer in film today is the man who scored The Dark Knight, Inception, and, yes, The Lion King. You’ll have to click here to learn this composer’s name, but Garrett points out that he’s virtually defined the sound of the big-budget action blockbuster today, and — like so many great composers — he’s a great teacher, mentoring the composers of music for Shrek and the Transformers series. Those may or may not be your favorite movies, but if you’re a fan of film music, you should know this composer’s name.

Meanwhile, Gwen Hoberg daydreams about having a royal patron — like Wagner, Haydn, and Handel did. What would you do if you had a royal patron who was dedicated to supporting your musical endeavors? Gwen’s tongue-in-cheek “patron wanted” ad offers her services as an arranger of Top 40 hits in the style of Liszt, among other musical pursuits she would happily undertake if provided with underwriting.

Also this week, Bob Dylan released a new single. Why is that newsworthy for classical music fans? Because the song’s melody was written by Rachmaninoff. That’s right, Dylan released his version of “Full Moon & Empty Arms,” a 1945 song best-known in a version by Frank Sinatra. Co-writer Ted Mossman made a specialty of appropriating melodies from the classical repertoire and turning them into pop songs; in this case, he cribbed the theme from the third movement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Listen to Dylan’s take on it here.‚Äč