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Mixed Company is written by Saint Paul Sunday staff, giving you a behind-the-scenes look at the show and the classical music they love. We welcome your online comments.

« Shadows and Light | Main | Various virtuosos »

June 20, 2005

Alive & Kickin'

In all the talk lately about how classical music is faltering, I keep finding younger artists who utterly disprove it, which gives me a lot more trust in the sheer durability of the art form and the performers who'll get us to the other side. I'm not blind to its challenges, but the great thing about classical is that it's got deep deep roots and draws from a greater palette of sources (including popular) than any other kind of music - so has wider expressive possibilities and can withstand the many different kinds of souls disciplined enough to make it their life's work...

Like Stephen Prutsman reimagining Mexican street music for Kronos Quartet one day, then channeling Bach at the piano with amazing subtlety the next...
Or the Brentano String Quartet playing Renaissance madrigals...
Or Matt Haimovitz taking his 1710 Gofriller cello into punk bars and jazz clubs and casting spells with Shostakovich...
Or Rachel Barton-Pine who plays Baroque solo music and Ravel's blues with utter panache, then goes home for a dose of Guns n' Roses.

More and more I just think of classical as the music for those who want to say the most they possibly can.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at June 20, 2005 11:26 AM



I'm a fan from New York, and a weekly listener. Last night's program with Kronos was a standout, with the most brilliant and daring playing and repertoire I have heard in a long time.

When I heard the opening air, so thrillingly played, and Bill
announced it as Hildegard of Bingen, my heart leaped. What were we in for? A great treat. From Tony McMahon's Buachaillin Ban (being Irish, I'm a little partisan), to the Sigur Ros, to Blind Willie Johnson's blues, and the
incandescent Schnittke piece that Kronos finished with, this was music broadcasting of the very highest order.

With thanks and deep appreciation to you and your production team.

Ultan, a big fan of Kronos and of St Paul Sunday

By Ultan Guilfoyle at June 20, 2005 3:20 PM


A few additional thoughts: Vaughn Ormseth's (what's the origin of your last name? Mine is Polish) comments are so thoughtful and knowledgeable, and so well crafted, that I'm certain that you could have a career as a writer if you chose. (Perhaps you do write about music other than this blog?)

Second: Hildegard von Bingham was a viscious anti-Semite (she hated Jews). Sadly, she joins many in the Catholic church who held similar views over many centuries. She also joins Wagner and the poet Ezra Pound. Does this color how we listen to and enjoy their art? For me it does.

And last: I'm a big blues fan. There are very few artforms which express such real, deep human emotion as an authentic blues song. (I'm thinking of Lightnin' Hopkins, Besse Smith, and Robert Johnson.) The Blind Willie Johnson transcription played by Kronos lost everything in translation. Some things just should not be transcribed.

John Niesyn
Fairfield, CT

By John Niesyn at June 20, 2005 11:36 PM


Reading Ultan's and John's engaging responses made me wonder for a moment if they were referring to the same program. And then it brought to mind Wilde’s claim that "when critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself"—which seems truer for Kronos than for many other ensembles. It feels central to who they are.

During the first concert of theirs I ever attended, Kronos performed a haunting work that incorporates tape of a sobbing woman. The effect was moving and unnerving, to say the least, so discomfiting to an audience member near my friends and me that she began to openly voice why. I found that discomfiting and said so afterward. But one of my friends, a composer, questioned why I should have. Wasn't that the point? he asked. He was right...I was grateful to him for making the connection.

By Vaughn Ormseth at June 24, 2005 10:45 AM


Speaking of grateful, thanks for the very kind words, John. Your further question about Hildegard, Wagner, and Pound is worthy of a website all its own—and I hope people continue the discussion here. For what it's worth, I too find that some artists' hateful views and actions can interfere with my experience of their work (alas). I don't think that that's a necessarily virtuous response, and people I really admire have a completely different take. My own approach keeps evolving.

There's something to be said for the fact that great art transcends its creator—that it has a life of its own. And "the past is a foreign country," as they say; I'm not sure we can really tease apart with 20/20 hindsight an artist from his or her work, or from the milieu of intolerance in which either developed. Nevertheless, art hits us where we're most receptive, behind our defenses of language and socialization. That's why we’re compelled and nourished by it, but also why, in that intimate zone, the knowledge of an artist’s inhumanity can complicate the exchange.

By Vaughn Ormseth at June 24, 2005 10:58 AM


Kudos to a wonderful programme which I first heard in North Carolina as a student. Now I'm a webby!
I think what John and Vaughan are talking about is one's complicity as a listener. Listening, reading literature, gazing at a painting, are complicit acts, although not just that. Or at least they make us feel like we are. Knowing that Wagner was a creep morally speaking can make listening to his music uneasy no matter how fantastic it is. Guess what though? Love it anyway.

By red raven at June 29, 2005 6:12 PM


Red Raven,

Do you mean in the sense that because (A) entering into a work art can be such an intimate act that (B) we can't help be complicit to some extent with its creator's beliefs & behaviors? Anyone else?

By Vaughn Ormseth at July 6, 2005 4:46 PM


Yes that's it i think. It's why art is so thrilling because there is this danger of complicity. (i kknow we're talking about art with capital A but it's not unlike physical intimacy. The sensual intimacy of art has parallels with sex i think it's fair to say.) But again, if art/music didn't have that potential it wouldn't hit us between the eyes/ears as it does. i suppose we should take care about what we're moved by. Triumph of the Will is one of the great film works of last century. My grandfather who survived the London bombings saw it and said =he= was moved. Hildegard and Leni might have got on. thank you for the romeros programme and many others

By red raven at August 20, 2005 8:16 AM


Red Raven's post reminds me of a moment in Stephen Prutsman's program (which you can hear online) when the pianist talks about the physical enjoyment -- not just the aural and artistic reward -- of the sensation of his fingers on the keys. SP finds it integral to his artistry.

And following up on John and Red Raven's earlier thoughts about music and morality, I'd recommend a wonderfully well-written new book by Michael Steinberg, "Choral Masterworks" (Oxford U Press). In his introduction Steinberg notes an unsettling response he has to a certain live recording made in 1940s Germany of Bach's B Minor Mass. Occasional coughs and other minor noises from the audience and chorus somehow bring home the terrible context of that place & time with special force. It's but one observation of many in a broadly engaging book...

By Vaughn Ormseth at September 14, 2005 5:32 PM