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Mixed Company®

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.

« April 2006 | Main | June 2006 »

May 31, 2006

Always On Their Toes

I suspect that there is never a dull moment in the St. Lawrence String Quartet. They perform challenging new repertoire alongside the most difficult classical repertoire, each musician plays with impressive athleticism, and the quartet is practically biting at the bit to do interesting collaborations with other artists (listen to their previous program with clarinetist Todd Palmer and composer Osvaldo Golijov as they perform his searing Yiddishbbuk).

The red phone

Off mic, the quartet jokingly shared with us that some of their raw ambition might be a result of professional fear. A couple of years ago, the quartet was recording some music at a Bavarian radio station. Just before they were about to start playing, an engineer brought into the studio a bright red phone (just like the Bat phone!) and set it on the floor in the middle of the group. "What is this for?" asked the quartet. "Well," the engineer explained, "when we hear you make a wrong note or go out of tune, we will call you from the control room and ask you to start again." No pressure. During a break in our recording session, our engineer placed an identical red phone in the studio as a joke, prompting me to snap this picture. No pressure indeed.

Posted by Suzanne Schaffer at 9:05 AM | Comments (3)


May 25, 2006


We met Imogen Cooper about 10 years ago when we asked other musician-friends, "Who should we working with that we don't know about?" They gave us some of her Schubert recordings to hear and we were struck by both her insights as a musician and her ability to communicate them to the listener. Her performances with us confirmed what we heard in the recordings and more importantly, they did for you as well. Her programs often received more listener notes than any other solo pianist.

Imogen is one of the most delightful people you'll ever meet, but I also admire her utter fearlessness. As a teen-ager she left her home in London to study in Paris with Alfred Brendel because she knew utterly that it was what she must do. And 10 years ago, she decided it was time to try some truly new repertoire (she's known for her performances from the classical period) and to commission a work from composer Thomas Adès. When you listen to the program, you’ll hear her tell the story of being greeted by friends who had seen the new composition after it was delivered but before she had seen it. They asked her "Would you like a stiff drink or a very stiff drink?" Adès writes music that is complex and mystical to the listener, but even more of a challenge to the musician. (Imogen deserved a "very stiff drink" the night she saw her new work). A pianist is used to playing from two staves of music (one for each hand); Adès' piece for Imogen often has five…and sometimes with different time markings in each staff. But that didn’t deter Imogen from taking it on, and in fact, she took four months off from regular performing to learn the work. In an age when we increasingly play it safe and when we rarely spend serious time learning something new, Imogen's love of adventure and commitment are a true inspiration.

Posted by Mary Lee at 1:11 PM | Comments (1)


May 19, 2006

Scarlatti Lives

One great thing classical music (broadly defined) has over most other kinds is a fathomless capacity for new interpretations, new approaches, new energies. There’s a reason it's referred to as “timeless”—it invites performers through the centuries to imprint it with their own moment in history, whether or not they pay conscious homage to its origins. When that happens, as REBEL shows us this week, the music of even the most familiar composers sounds as though it’s being performed for the first time.

REBEL’s six members achieve this with amazing virtuosity and dash. For them, Baroque music is a living, breathing world, a world alive with beauty sometimes as eccentric as the original meaning of the word implies—and a world they invite us into with every phrase. Watching and listening to them perform this program, I had no immediate sense that their repertoire is almost three centuries old. I was only swept away.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at 3:26 PM | Comments (1)


May 9, 2006

Happy Accidents

Read Noble Accents from a past visit by eighth blackbird

However freely the six members of eighth blackbird stretch and blur musical boundaries (or dispense with them altogether), for me the exhilaration in the risks they take springs less from the performers’ irreverence than from their sheer confidence in charting new territory. It’s as mesmerizing as travel, not least because we know that the craft and crew conveying us are wonderfully sound.

This week’s program introduces another variable into eighth blackbird’s already wide-ranging ventures. The second work the sextet plays, Frederic Rzewski's Les Moutons des Panurge, composes itself anew with each performance by the accretion of single notes into ever longer, more intricate lines—a process of mimicry and repetition so increasingly complex that error becomes inevitable.

That’s when the fun begins.

Once the performers find themselves out of synch, just a little, it gives them license to play with freshly evolving patterns and to maximize the options those present. With the earlier line still intact in our ears, the unraveling that follows is all the more delicious, especially when explored with musicians as deeply responsive as eighth blackbird. At some point, a certain euphoria takes over—perhaps akin to the kind jazz and Baroque artists know well—and Molly, Matt, Michael, Nick, Lisa, and Matthew take us into zones never entered before nor to be entered again.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at 5:06 PM | Comments (4)


May 3, 2006

Creating Her Own Path

If someone asked you where they should go to become successful in music, we might all probably respond "New York City." But violinist Rachel Barton Pine wasn't asking for advice when she established her music career. As a result, one of the U.S.'s finest young talents has made a big name for herself in Chicago, where the closest coast is on Lake Michigan.

It's a pleasure to have Rachel on Saint Paul Sunday this week along with pianist Matthew Hagle in part because the duo is delightfully unpredictable. Rachel has an incredible diversity in her taste for music. In addition to studying classical violin music, she has learned how to play like a Scottish fiddler. After a recent recital at the National Gallery, she sped off to catch the end of a Rob Zombie concert. Whether it's choosing Chicago as her home base or studying fiddling technique, Rachel has an amazing curiosity and enthusiasm to try new things and for me, it's contagious. What in this program sparked your curiosity?

Posted by Suzanne Schaffer at 5:10 PM | Comments (1)