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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.

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November 30, 2005

'The Amazing Race' meets the Piano Trio

You wouldn't necessarily guess it, but the world of chamber music is at times a fiercely competitive business. It reminds me a little of the TV show, "The Amazing Race." On the show a number of teams each try to complete difficult challenges on a scavenger hunt around the world. The first one over the finish line wins a huge amount of money. Though we usually see them perform in tuxes and black gowns, string quartets and trios at the Amelias’ level could probably win the Amazing Race with their eyes closed.

The secret to "winning," it seems to me, is innovation and that's just where the Amelia Piano Trio is so successful.

String ensembles are eager to check off their lists mastering all of the Haydn trios, for example, to prove that they have arrived on the classical music scene. The Amelia Piano Trio goes about things a little differently. True, they play the classic favorites exquisitely well, but rather than compare their performance of a piece with that of another ensemble, the Amelia Piano Trio is commissioning new music from fantastic composers like John Harbison. If they were on the TV show, the Amelia is the team that would have thought to build a sled to slide down the Alpine mountain while the other teams hiked. The Amelia Trio has another advantage: they know that the prize is not a big pot of money, but respect and attracting more people interested in listening to classical music.

How do you think performers invigorate the field of music?

Posted by Suzanne Schaffer at 9:44 AM


November 21, 2005


One of the things I have always loved about listening to music is its ability to transport us to a different time and place. I felt this powerfully when we did a show recently with Fretwork and the great English soprano Emma Kirkby.

Fretwork is a viol consort, the sort of ensemble which was very popular in the Tudor courts of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Accordingly, they played us English music from the time of Henry VIII, through the time of Queen Elizabeth (and Shakespeare, of course) and beyond, all the way to the composer of the Reconstruction, Henry Purcell, to whom fell the task of reconstructing music after Cromwell’s revolution.

The historical canvas against which this program was played is vast and colorful — Henry’s reign alone alone could stand as material for an opera (actually, it has, come to think of it.) — Reformation, the Spanish Armada, the beginning of English colonization of the New World, the writing of the King James bible, the Glorious Revolution and beheading of King Charles and Reconstruction. And I’m only touching the high points, or at least, the best known points.

I loved hearing Emma Kirkby join these virtuoso gambists in a program which brought together scholarship and deep musicality, melancholy and gaiety, inventive composers and extraordinary poets, drawn together with history and clever detective work to give us ‘Music for a while, (which) shall all your cares beguile.’

Every age needs its poets and musicians to beguile us when times are complicated and challenging. And they always are. Thank heaven, then, for musicians and a singer who make us feel our kinship with our distant ancestors and find solace and harmony in that kinship.

Posted by Bill McGlaughlin at 5:42 PM | Comments (3)


November 18, 2005

Perfect Storms

I first met the young Israeli pianist Shai Wosner when he came with two Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center companions, bassoonist Milan Turkovic and clarinetist David Shifrin, for music of Beethoven and Glinka. The three played beautifully together, and Shai spoke eloquently about both composers, revealing himself to be as insightful (even about Glinka!) and occasionally as wry as he was splendid at the piano.

In the time between then and this week’s program, Shai won the Avery Fisher Award along with more hearts of fans and critics alike. It’s wonderful to have him back in the studio on his own for music of Chopin, for whom he clearly has great affinity, Schumann, and again Beethoven, this time in the “Tempest” sonata.

By turns noble, obsessive, ecstatic, and mercurial, the “Tempest” both defined and stirred into life a whole new world for Beethoven and for music—one Shai himself inhabits with arresting presence. To my ear, the brief Schumann Nachtstück he performs just before (yet another instance of Schumann’s surpassing melodic gifts) prepares us as well as anything could for the wide-ranging exploration we take with this remarkable pianist.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at 6:08 PM | Comments (2)


November 11, 2005

Still Waters

The very first recording session I ever attended here (cryptically known in our program files as “SPSM #292”) presented a brilliant young violinist from Berlin playing music of Bach, Beethoven, Schönberg, and Hartmann.

I’d started listening to Saint Paul Sunday Morning as a college student some years earlier until that day, when suddenly I found myself at its nerve center—a control room banked with glimmering diodes and potentiometers, and a spacious wood-walled studio with a Steinway D gleaming behind groves of precisely arranged mike stands. For such a down-to-earth program it seemed to marshal a formidable degree of expertise.

So I’ve always been grateful that the guest from Berlin was Thomas Zehetmair. Without any flash, he cut through all the unfamiliar stimuli like a laser beam. In some deep sense he still embodies for me much of what Saint Paul Sunday is about—which may sound a little odd because that partly means conversation, and Thomas is hardly a talker. He’s more like the unassuming former Olympic speed skater I know who used to practice without socks to get the sheerest possible feel for the ice beneath the blades...

It’s all there—blazing intensity, with no loss of elegance or lightness; individuality, with great faithfulness to the composer, even when to our modern ears that fidelity can sound at times almost bashful. This week Thomas returns to the studio with two equally attuned companions, violist Ruth Killius and cellist Rosie Biss, for rare string trio music of Mozart, Schubert, and Gideon Klein. In my time with Saint Paul Sunday (last week we logged “SPS #584”), this trio’s performance of the Adagio from Mozart’s E-flat Divertimento is, and will always be, an unqualified peak experience.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at 10:50 AM | Comments (7)


November 2, 2005

Talent and Awkward Questions

Maybe the situation is vastly different in other American cities, but last week I went to an orchestral concert here in my Midwestern town and counted the number of people of color in the large auditorium—finding two, both onstage. Classical music has enough critical issues (aging audiences and galloping technology changes, for starters) and I don't think race is necessarily one of them. But it does seem to me to be a kind of elephant in the living room. America is roughly twelve percent black, but you'd never know that in the concert hall. African American classical performers like pianist Andre Watts and soprano Kathleen Battle are superstars in their field—but where in general is the black audience? Famous performers aside for a minute, does this music really not touch people of color? Why? Why not? OK, it doesn't touch the vast majority of white Americans either, but still, why are concert halls so white? Is it offensive or inaccurate to speak of "people of color" and this music when there is such a galaxy of diversity within "their" communities? How do we even talk about this?

I don't know. But the questions loom in my mind when Anthony McGill pulls out his clarinet. If I were blind I would tell you first and foremost that Mr. McGill can play. You'll hear it in the opening bar when he spins silver out of Debussy's grey-cloud harmonies. It only gets better in the Poulenc Sonata, which starts off clever and snappy but then turns heartbreakingly sad in the second movement. A single word came over and over to me as I listened to Anthony: elegance.

But I'm not blind. Here in the studio was a slight, handsome African American man, now first chair at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra—the administrators of which probably wrote “he's the one” on their audition sheets as soon as he started playing. We didn't get into it in our St. Paul Sunday session, but I wondered: with playing this exceptional, are questions of race and classical music simply moot? Anthony McGill (like Watts, Battle, and others) makes me think they are and that I'm silly to spend a second wondering about them. But then I search all those white faces around me in the auditorium, and wonder again...

-Brian Newhouse, Guest Host
Senior Host and Producer, Minnesota Orchestra broadcast concerts

Posted by Brian Newhouse at 3:32 PM | Comments (7)