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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 2006 | Main | October 2006 »

September 29, 2006

Bigger than Life?

Thomas Hampson has enjoyed a full career as a singer: orchestra, opera and recital performances around the world, recordings—there's not much he hasn't done. With all of his success, you'd think he'd just kick back and enjoy his life and his work. Well he does enjoy his life and his work, but it doesn't include kicking back. In fact, it's more like kicking forward. And what he's kicking forward is his passion for American song.

Working with the Library of Congress' "Creativity in America" project, Hampson has poured himself into making sure that the Library's own phenomenal collection of songs is heard through live performances, including doing the research necessary to provide social context for the songs.

Tom is a big presence on stage and a big person in life. He walks into the studio and with that big beautiful voice says "hello" and you sort of say to yourself "wow—he's the real thing." When you hear him sing on Saint Paul Sunday you'll say the same: He's the real deal.

Posted by Mary Lee at 4:47 PM | Comments (6)


September 28, 2006

Time/Space Pianism

Leif Ove Andsnes doesn't so much interpret the works he performs as inhabit them. Maybe the distinction rings more semantic than real (a temptation for anyone who tries to write about music and musicians), but to me it goes to the heart of what's so special and perhaps paradoxical about his artistry.

With Leif Ove, it's all about the music. The person is unassuming and kind, even humble, and the pianist doesn't get in the way of the masterpieces at hand. Yet he's very much there—hyper-present, in fact, to Schumann's or Beethoven's or Grieg's intentions and idiosyncrasies without for a moment letting them suspend the possibilities he hears and draws to the surface of our hearing. (Monster technique doesn't hurt.)

An oft-repeated criterion for greatness in music is the capacity to invite and sustain ever new readings with no loss of the beloved original essence. Even so, how can a pianist at once channel and self-express as holistically as Leif Ove Andsnes does? It's as though he takes us from two dimensions to three, or from three dimensions to who knows how many more.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at 12:49 PM | Comments (6)


September 22, 2006

Mystery Man

This program, performed by the great Emerson String Quartet, airs on the eve of Dmitri Shostakovich's hundredth birthday. With that in mind, it felt important to say something momentous, or at least new, about the composer, whose biography seems to grow less determinate with time, but whose music strikes me as ever more timely and accessible.

For me, though, the debate over his agonized loyalties is increasingly beside the point. We know at least that he suffered terribly, in a kind of twilight of dread, throughout and long after the Stalinist nightmare. He may have been less a casualty and more a reluctant cog, but he can't possibly have come through the horrors undamaged. As the welcome reassessment of his life and art continues around this centennial, it's perhaps worth remembering too that for many survivors of authoritarianism, self-betrayal, which is always complicit in the betrayal of others, is perhaps the cruelest legacy of all.

And as my interest in Shostakovich the victim/collaborator/cipher dwindles, my astonishment over the composer and his music grows. On this program, the Emerson gives us a brilliant sampling of his range, from the exuberant, sometimes ecstatic, early quartets—works that meld restive drive with the composer's endlessly seizing ear—to the spectral thirteenth, whose deeply insular language the Emerson translates with unsettling sympathy (and nerve).

Shostakovich's music could seem alien to me as a younger person. These days, particularly in the late quartets, there's often little interference at all (at times too little). Under the spell of the Emersons, we just go where the music takes us. If the trip is at times a little harrowing, there's also the great comfort of knowing someone has been there before.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at 4:58 PM | Comments (5)


September 14, 2006

Visual contrasts

We recorded Anonymous 4 at St. Bernard's Catholic Church in north St. Paul (rather than in the studio) so that the last notes of their music could resonate and linger like the singing you might hear in a cathedral or another large, echoey space. It turned out to be an acoustically, and especially visually, stunning change of scenery.

We recorded in the evening after the last mass and turned off all of the lights and air circulation so that the church was completely silent. It was also completely dark, which made finding your way around a bit of a trick, but the music stand lights left Anonymous 4 and Bill McGlaughlin in a small pool of light.

Senior Producer Vaughn Ormseth listens to Anonymous 4 during the sound check. Photo by Suzanne Schaffer Susan Hellauer and Marsha Genesky discuss the tradition of shape note singing. Photo by Suzanne Schaffer Susan Hellauer, Marsha Genesky and Johanna Rose go over some last minute notes before recording begins. Photo by Suzanne Schaffer

I'm not sure if it was the stark contrast of the dark church to the lighted altar or the ethereal sound produced by size of the church, however there was something spiritual, maybe even sobering, about the music. Anonymous 4 is well-known for their clean, pure and passionate sound and I found that they are also great image evokers. Their singing brought to my mind the hard-working, early pioneers, many of whom didn't have formal musical training, but whose determination and purity of intent resulted in rich hymns. What images come to your mind when you listen to Anonymous 4?

Posted by Suzanne Schaffer at 5:25 PM | Comments (15)


September 7, 2006

Sui Generis

Listening to this week's program, some lines from Norman Maclean's beautiful flyfishing memoir A River Runs Through It improbably came to mind—lines about beer, of all things, and how it used to be that each of the small cities of a certain size in Maclean's and my home state brewed its own kind:

You could leave beer to cool in the river, and it would be so cold when you got back it wouldn't foam much. It would be a beer made in the next town if the town were ten thousand or over. So it was either Kessler Beer made in Helena or Highlander Beer made in Missoula that we left to cool in the Blackfoot River. What a wonderful world it was once when all the beer was not made in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.

Although this ensemble's music making is every bit as delicious as an icy beer after a day of fishing mountain waters (the very waters that go into the beer), I'm sure the first connection my mind made here was to Maclean's laconic way of cherishing the vernacular—those local, homemade chords that anchored his world at that time, and his rueful awareness of their passing.

In our pitilessly generic culture, the singular sound and complexion of the Czech Nonet is, to me, sheer respite. Its history, now something of a legend in chamber music circles, began almost accidentally when in the years after World War I a group of students at the Prague Conservatory got together to perform a work by Louis Spohr, which called for its particular blend of instruments. In the 82 years since, the nonet has inspired numerous composers to write for them, in part because they needed music! Probably the most famous of these is Bohuslav Martinů, whose expansive and similarly individual music we hear on this program.

Yet it's not just the group's instrumentation that stirs such rare colors into life, it's also a tone of voice, the specifically Czech accent and approach of its individual players, who still largely hail from the Prague Conservatory. The effect isn't the same even when equally accomplished artists of other traditions join forces for the same music, wonderful as those collaborations themselves can be. When the Czech Nonet plays, it draws us into a time and a world still wholly its own.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at 11:51 AM | Comments (7)