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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.

« August 2005 | Main | October 2005 »

September 29, 2005

Going Their Own Way

Trio Mediæval has soared to the top of the classical charts in short order, and as soon as they began to perform for this program we knew why… Aside from the sheer beauty and power of their singing, they venture well beyond the bounds their early repertoire would traditionally impose on them. They sing music originating in the echoey all-male world of the early church, taking it out of that initial context to a fairly radical degree and juxtaposing it with remarkable contemporary works of composers who know and write for them. The contrast of old and new intensifies the emotional force of each, yet the overall effect is of timelessness—nowhere more keenly apparent than in the haunting Nordic folksongs that conclude the hour.

On the afternoon before our evening recording session, which took place in an acoustically excellent church nearby, we called Trio Mediæval several times at their hotel to go over logistics (there are always many). As the blustery afternoon wore on, we grew concerned that we hadn’t heard back, not least because one of them had just weeks earlier recovered from pneumonia. When we did hear, with just 30 minutes spare, they told us they’d had a relaxing afternoon of walking and shopping and seemed mystified by our concern. Soon enough they were singing their hearts out, wrapped in beautiful new winter scarves to keep their throats warm in the chilly nave. By then it made perfect sense.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at 9:55 AM | Comments (3)


September 21, 2005

Musical Archaeologists

Had you heard of the composer Edwin York Bowen before this program? Me neither. Turns out, according to flutist Jeffrey Khaner, that Bowen was a popular English composer (even called the "English Rachmaninoff") around the time of the First World War. After the war, though, his lush, romantic harmonies and tonal music became a bit unfashionable and today he is virtually unknown in the US and UK.

Enter Jeffrey Khaner. Jeff was looking for new repertoire for a recital and a friend suggested that he look into this little-played composer. The music was out of print and difficult to find, but when he did find this Flute Sonata, he uncovered a gem. I felt as though I had made a musical archaeological discovery (without doing any of the work). I remember a similar incident occurring on Saint Paul Sunday with the introduction to another little-known English composer, Rebecca Clarke, by violists Paul Coletti and Helen Callus. With musicians and ensembles constantly looking for new, exciting repertoire it's a nice reminder that we have an incredibly rich musical history yet to uncover.

Have you discovered any old "new" music lately?

Posted by Suzanne Schaffer at 3:44 PM | Comments (5)


September 14, 2005

Grown up responsibilities

Luckily (or not) I am the oldest in my family. My younger sister complained often growing up about teachers calling her by my name or family members expecting her to be involved in the same activities that I enjoyed. Probably equal parts good and bad my reputation preceded her, so my sister set out to be as different from me as possible. I think when many people hear the single name "Midori" they think of the gifted child prodigy who knocked everyone's socks off when she debuted with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 11. Who they should be thinking of, though, is the virtuosic adult violinist who is also a tireless advocate for new music and music education.

Midori's program with longtime friend and pianist Robert MacDonald here is only the tip of the iceberg. She wanted to play some of her favorite pieces—by Debussy, Brahms, Sarasate—but also tucked in there a Romance by Amy Beach. Today, Beach is a well-respected composer, but in her day she was discouraged from performing her music in public by her father and husband. Such a thing would never happen on Midori's watch. She is founder of no less than three non-profits devoted to music education and has recently been working on ways to use media to introduce audiences to new music. This summer while on tour in Asia she wrote a blog about how performers can engage and interact with their audience. What are your thoughts? How can classical performances become more interactive for audiences?

Posted by Suzanne Schaffer at 12:57 PM | Comments (3)


September 9, 2005


When our studio and guest schedules don’t mesh, as sometimes happens, we need to find alternate recording spaces—especially when doing so means that we can capture programs with an ensemble as esteemed and exhilarating as the Guarneri String Quartet. Venturing beyond the controlled confines of the studio, though, also means navigating an increasingly noisy urban world. There are planes, trains, and automobiles; boom boxes and thunder; and, in the case of this program, the voices of happy third-graders.

At one point during the recording, there was a ruckus outside the windows of the makeshift control room we’d set up in the sacristy. When I went out to plead for a little quiet, I saw a circle of schoolchildren and teachers holding hands in the sun as they boisterously released butterflies they’d nurtured from cocoons (a science project no doubt). I’d just heard one of the great ensembles of the world perform Schumann’s “Clara” quartet only to stumble onto this joyous scene. It was something.

The circle broke as soon as the butterflies had scattered, and the kids jostled back to class. I returned to the circle inside, which was still in the process of releasing its own butterflies: glancing and refined music of Arriaga and the vivid songs that dance in and out of Kodály’s second quartet. The Guarneri sounded as magisterial as ever—urbane and warm and wise all at once.

And that was good because after the session, as we got into our cars to drive the quartet to the airport, two young men in heavy boots burst out of their own car across the street, slamming a third man onto the ground, where they began to pound and kick his face and body. A young woman came screaming out of her house and suddenly we were all shouting at them to stop—Bill doing so as he tried to wrest the men off their victim. The ugliness ended bloodily but soon (not soon enough) and the thugs sped off, leaving us jarred and saddened.

Contrary to what I might have expected, though, the Schumann ringing in my ears before the incident returned before too long, and I fell into no despair over art’s relative powerlessness over violence, as I sometimes have. Just the opposite—I felt lucky. And Schumann is hardly that fragile, not when brought to life as wholly as the Guarneri just had. He braved his demons by composing music as beautiful as any ever written—music that’s offered hope ever since. Real hope in the face of real darkness, not the easy fear of vengeful cowards.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at 6:23 PM | Comments (7)