Click on Classical this Weekend: a brand-new website

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Navigating Classical MPR’s new website (MPR graphic/Brett Baldwin)
This week, Classical MPR unveiled its brand-new website. Make sure to take a tour — and to help you kick the tires on our new site, here are three feature recommendations for you.

How to navigate the new site

Learning a new website is a bit like arriving in a city you’ve never visited before: It’s important to learn your way around. After Classical MPR launched its new site on Wednesday afternoon, Managing Digital Producer Brett Baldwin put together this guide to navigating the new site. All the features you enjoyed before, like audio streaming and playlists, are still on the site — they’re just in different spots now!

How a composer feels at a premiere

Perhaps it’s like rolling out a new website, perhaps not … but how does it feel for a composer to hear a piece of music performed publicly for the first time? Daniel Nass, who’s a digital producer at Classical MPR, is also a composer. He recently premiered a piece in New York — an original composition for flute, alto flute and cello. As the ensemble performed the work, Dan explains his feelings, which are always a combination of fear, anxiety and exhilaration.

How to make a living building harps

Another Dan, MPR News reporter Dan Olson, recently visited Duluth, Minn., where he stopped into the workshop of harp builder David Kortier. A former orchestral musician (bassoonist), Kortier has been building Irish harps since the 1980s. Kortier’s approach to instrument building combines tradition, woodworking skills and musicianship. It’s a fascinating story, and Dan Olson’s photos are really captivating. It just may make you want to learn to play the harp — or learn to build them (Kortier might just want an apprentice).

Have a great weekend!

When automakers design pianos

Last week we shared the news that Hungarian pianist Gergely Bonányi has designed what he believes is the piano of the future. John Birge noticed that the new piano bears a strong resemblance to the Batmobile—which reminded John of pianos that have actually been designed by automakers.

Last year, piano manufacturer Pleyel unveiled this instrument they designed and manufactured with the Peugeot Design Lab.

In 2009, Audi celebrated its centenary by designing a concert grand that ran about $140,000.

John also discovered a Pinterest board full of unusual piano designs that make clear Bonányi wasn’t the first to reconceive the piano’s exterior in a dramatic way. Of course, Bonányi has made clear that his piano is distinguished for its redesigned soundboard and other interior features in addition to its sweeping exterior. Still, history clearly shows that there’s more than one way to skin a piano.

Music for Remembering

Before video-streaming services, people turned to television to view Rodgers and Hammerstein’s telling of the Von Trapp family’s musical ascent and their subsequent escape from Austria after the Anschluss. Nearly every year during my childhood, my family and I watched The Sound of Music on TV, captivated by the story and the songs.

One year stands out in particular. When I was about seven years old, the next morning after watching the film, I sat at our kitchen table with scrap paper and crayons. A confusing image lingered in my mind from the previous night’s viewing, so I began tracing the jagged symbol I had seen in the film — something my childish brain took to mean not much more than “the bad guys.” In the midst of this naïve artistic endeavor, my dad walked into the kitchen and stopped me. “We don’t ever draw that,” he said firmly.

Putting my crayons aside, he proceeded to explain — in terms perfectly tailored to a boy, aged seven — the Holocaust. He described how men, women and children were taken away and murdered for no other reason than for being Jewish. Because one of my very first friends was Ari, a boy in my neighborhood who often came out to play wearing a yarmulke, there was added poignancy to what my father said.

Since that early conversation with my dad, my grasp of the atrocity and scale of the Holocaust has been reinforced through reading The Diary of Anne Frank at school and by reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning at college. I’ve been able to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and just last year, I visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Ill., for the first time.

Fountain of the Righteous at Illinois Holocaust Museum
Fountain of the Righteous outside the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Ill. (MPR photo/Luke Taylor)

The latter two articulated the fact that the Holocaust happened in modern times. Although people in the 1930s and ’40s didn’t carry smartphones, their lifestyle was a lot like ours: They listened to the radio. They went to the movies. They lived in cities and worked in offices and drove cars and used public transit and cooked dinner and washed dishes and went shopping and wore clothes not much different from our own.

And they listened to music.

January 27, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In his book, Desperate Journey, Auschwitz survivor Freddie Knoller describes growing up in Vienna and loving music. After the Anschluss, he fled his native Austria for Belgium, where he worked for a while as a cellist in a young people’s orchestra. When Belgium was invaded, Knoller was forced to flee again, and advised to carry only the essentials. “My cello was not an essential, but how I hated leaving it behind,” Knoller writes. “With its loss, I felt I was leaving part of myself, the part which tied me to my life in Vienna, to my parents. When I played, I always thought of home.”

Knoller’s parents died at Auschwitz. Knoller himself lived as a refugee for a few years but was ultimately transported to the death camp. By dint of his unrelenting survival instinct and no small amount of random luck, Knoller survives to this day.

Viktor Ullmann, a composer, conductor and pianist, did not survive. His music, however, lives on, as evidenced by this recording of his Violin Concerto No. 3, from the album, Uplifting Discoveries from a Generation Lost: Music of composers who died in the Holocaust (Centaur 2342). Ullmann’s work is performed by the Colorado Chamber Players:

[apmaudio id=”/minnesota/classical/performances/2015/01/26/20150126_ullman_str_qtt_no3_20150126″ site=”classicalmpr” date=”Jan 26, 2015″ title=”Viktor Ullman, String Quartet No. 3″][/apmaudio]

It stirs recollection of a lesson about the Holocaust from another family member, my maternal grandfather. During World War II, he had been part of an Allied railway brigade, charged with rebuilding the rail infrastructure as the Axis powers retreated from North Africa, Italy, France and ultimately, into Germany.

Sadly, Alzheimer’s Disease mercilessly stole my grandfather’s delightful wit and steel-trap memory in his final years, but there was a late moment of lucidity that remains permanently inscribed in my mind. It was something he had never told me before.

He and I were watching television, and a news story about a Holocaust commemoration came on. My grandfather spoke, his tone angry. “There are people who say that didn’t happen,” he spat incredulously. “But I saw it — I saw those people liberated from the camps. Their faces —” he gripped his own face and squeezed his cheeks together to describe the emaciated survivors’ appearances. “I saw it. It happened. Don’t forget that.”

With stories and with ceremonies and with music, people the world over take time to remember.

Philip Glass to collaborate on score of new ‘Fantastic Four’ movie

Philip Glass is often called the most famous living composer, in part because he’s no stranger to pop-culture collaborations, from the crossover Glassworks album to dozens of movie scores. Still, no one expected the news that Glass, 77, is collaborating with composer Marco Beltrami on the score of the forthcoming film based on Marvel superhero quartet the Fantastic Four.

“I just saw your movie [Chronicle, 2012] and it’s very philosophical,” director Josh Trank says Glass told him in a phone call Trank described as “one of the coolest calls I’ve ever had in my life because he’s f—ing Philip Glass and he had just watched my movie.”

Trank told the movie news blog Collider (via The Guardian) that Glass visited the Fantastic Four set for three days and “had a great time.” Glass, Trank said, has been working on the score for over a year, in collaboration with Beltrami—a composer best-known for scoring thrillers and horror films.

A new trailer has just been released for Trank’s Fantastic Four movie, which is being described as a “reboot” rather than a sequel to the earlier Fantastic Four films released in 2005 and 2007. The new Fantastic Four is schedule for release on Aug. 7.

Is this the piano of the future? It sure looks like it

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Has the evolution of the piano stalled? Having evolved from humble origins, the piano had reached more or less its present state — in both upright and grand configurations — by the end of the 19th century. While the 20th century saw a multitude of electronic keyboards put into use by musicians of all genres, the piano remained basically the piano. Gergely Bonányi thinks it’s time for that to change.

The Hungarian pianist says he’s spent ten years rethinking his instrument from the inside out, not a single one of the piano’s 18,000 parts being taken for granted. The result is an instrument built to sound as good as he imagined a piano could sound, manufactured by German company Louis Renner.

The manufacturer claims that the new piano, with a redesigned soundboard and agraffe system (the system of pins to which the strings are tied), produces “a more refined tone sensation” that “provokes a novel perception of sound,” whatever that means. Bonányi and Louis Renner claim that the piano stays in tune longer to boot, and is more resistant than conventional pianos to varying environmental conditions.

You don’t need to look under the hood, so to speak, to know you’re looking at a new piano: the entire frame, based on a concert grand configuration, has been redesigned to stand on two legs with a sweeping, airstreamed look.

Will the Bogányi piano become a new standard for classical musicians — or will it be the Google Glass of the concert stage, a pricey gadget that’s never quite taken seriously? Only time will tell. As they say on Composers Datebook, all music was once new — and so were all instruments.

On the Air This Week

Highlights from January 20 to 27

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

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: Maria and Ben Hanson.

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

Wednesday, 8 pm: Minnesota Opera: Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Thursday, 3 pm: Regional Spotlight: Choral Arts Ensemble of Rochester.

Friday, 8 pm: Minnesota Orchestra: Mark Wigglesworth conducts Walton and Bruckner.

Saturday, noon: The Metropolitan Opera: Puccini’s La Boheme.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: Stephen’s Points.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra plays Dvorak and Shostakovich.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen: Rachel Barton Pine on Mozart.

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: Roberto Abbado conducts Beethoven and Campogrande.

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Feature.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Feature.

Click on Classical 1/20/15: Oscar and opera nominations, plus a Baby Einstein mystery

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Every Monday morning at 9:15, I join John Birge on Classical MPR to talk about stories we’re featuring on our website. Due to the holiday, this week we’re talking on Tuesday, and here are the stories we’ll be discussing.

The 2015 Academy Award nominations were announced last week, and though we don’t yet know who the Oscar will go to, we know who won the race for Best Original Score: French composer Alexandre Desplat, who garnered two of the five nominations for his Grand Budapest Hotel and Imitation Game scores. Another nominee was Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar​ score, which has been at the center of a controversy involving the film’s sound mix.

The 2015 Opera Award nominations were also announced last week, with Joyce DiDonato and the English National Opera each nabbing multiple nods.

Finally, Courtney Algeo wrote about a musical Baby Einstein toy that her young son loves​ — though she’s had a surprising amount of difficulty in naming those tunes.

Click on Classical this weekend: dogs and music; choral concert; pond hockey

Composer Lisa Spector and her dogs (photo by Mark Holthusen)

As you’re browsing the Internet this weekend, here are some stories I think you’ll enjoy reading.

Sharing music with our dogs

Many people who enjoy listening to classical music report that it helps them relax or that it helps them to energize. It turns out dogs respond to music much the same way humans do. Heather McElhatton, the producer of a new American Public Media program called A Beautiful World, spoke to composer and dog lover Lisa Spector, who has worked on a series of recordings that can help dogs — and the people who love them — to relax and to feel less anxiety.

Celebrating LGBT rights with music

This weekend, One Voice Mixed Chorus — the Twin Cities premier LGBT choir — presents two concerts at the Hopkins High School auditorium. Titled, “Eat, Drink and Be Married,” the concerts celebrate the advances in equal rights for the LGBT community. Earlier today, my colleague Alison Young spoke with OVMC’s Sarah Ramseyer Miller and Allan Warrior about the concerts. We’ve also posted a video that takes you behind the scenes of the choir’s rehearsal for the show.

Checking in with the state’s talented teen musicians

Minnesota Varsity made an important step forward this week, announcing the Featured Round artists in the statewide showcase of teenage classical musicians. Instrumentalists, vocalists, ensembles and composers from up and down the state have been named to Minnesota Varsity’s Featured Round, putting them one step closer to the showcase concert at the Fitzgerald Theater on April 19.

BONUS: If Mother Nature cooperates, it’ll be a great weekend to get outdoors to play or to spectate at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. Teams come from across the nation to compete for the Golden Shovel. MPR News’ Jeffrey Thompson has assembled a series of short videos that take us behind the scenes of this tournament that is characteristically Minnesotan.

Have a great weekend!

Joyce DiDonato, English National Opera top 2015 Opera Awards nominations

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Everything’s coming up Joyce DiDonato: the 45-year-old American soprano is the only singer to be nominated in two categories of the 2015 Opera Awards. DiDonato is nominated for the Female Singer award as well as for the Operatic Recital category — for her album Stella di Napoli.

Among companies, the English National Opera dominates with four nominations, including the overall Opera Company award and the World Premiere award for Julian Anderson’s Thebans.

This year’s awards will be presented on April 26 at the Savoy Hotel in London. See the complete list of nominations here.


Photo courtesy Joyce DiDonato

On the Air This Week

Highlights from January 13 to 20

Tuesday, 7:15 am: Teacher Feature: Nathan Knoll, of Southwest High School.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: rare book librarian John Davenport.

Tuesday, 7:15 pm: Teacher Feature: Nathan Knoll, of Southwest High School.

Thursday, 3 pm: Regional Spotlight: Bach Society of Minnesota.

Friday, 8 pm: Minnesota Orchestra: Future Classics.

Saturday, noon: The Metropolitan Opera: Lehar’s The Merry Widow.

Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: Minnesota Memories.

Sunday, noon: From the Top.

Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: Alisa Weilerstein plays Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Monday, noon: Learning to Listen.

Monday, 8 pm: Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: Busoni, Berlioz, and Beethoven.

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.