This week, we celebrate the birthday of Marian Anderson. The opera superstar was born in Philadelphia in 1897. WRTI’s Jim Cotter says that though her voice had an ethereal quality, the late, great contralto was renowned for her humility and her humanity.
Band music includes marches, pop songs, and transcriptions of orchestral works. But over the last century more composers have written explicitly for winds. The Philadelphia Wind Symphony was founded, in part, to explore the variety and richness of the repertoire.
Music lives at LaRose Jazz Club in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. That's where sax player and local jazz legend Tony Williams has a steady Monday night gig. WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston spends time with Tony Williams - now in his 80s - and finds out how this mainstay of the Philadelphia jazz scene keeps it fresh today and pursues his vision for tomorrow.
An educator, musician and mentor, Williams has been part of the jazz scene in Philadelphia and beyond for decades. His passion for jazz comes through as he blows on the saxophone in his Mount Airy home. Williams' humble altruism has also spilled out into the neighborhood. In the late 1970s, he spearheaded the formation of a number of teen jazz bands, including “Pieces of a Dream,” and the “Stenton Diner Teenage Jazz Band,” made up of teenagers from Germantown and Mount Airy. And for over 35 years his Mount Airy Cultural Center has built a bridge to the next generation - through jazz.
Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin would seem to be taking The Philadelphia Orchestra back to 1930. That was the year the late Leopold Stokowski, heard here with the Depression-era Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring when it was first danced in the United States. But there’s nothing retrogressive in what New York’s cutting-edge Ridge Theater is cooking up for this week’s Rite with the Orchestra. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns is still guessing what it will look like.
The least-used spaces in Verizon Hall are….up in the air.
STEARNS: There’s much height to it. There are projection surfaces above the orchestra. Why not make that a playing space for the choreography as well?
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Vice President of Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman is referring to the use of an aerialist. For that, he’s commandeering the hall for an entire week to set up the proper rigging. The production's winter-to-spring depiction will also have video projections on multiple screens and scrims, plus dancers. Though, not that many, says Nezet-Seguin.
NEZET-SEGUIN: There’s a few dancers but it’s not danced the whole thing, which was important for me.
Time and again, the conductor emphasizes that his orchestra is not going to get lost in a lot of theatrical bells and whistles. The huge Ridge Theater apparatus is there to serve the Orchestra. The conductor, not the dancers, will dictate tempos, says Rothman.
ROTHMAN: Yannick is somewhat uncompromising about what he wants to present musically.
The Rite of Spring has been widely and wildly interpreted over the years, from tribal Russian dancers of the Joffrey Ballet to Paul Taylor’s film-noir version with gangsters. Just how far afield will this one go? Is the ballet still about human sacrifice?
ROTHMAN: There is a sacrifice…the idea was to get back to the spirit of it…but rather than the …is to take the same spirit and update it with more modern means. But there’s still a sacrifice.
While many people still attend concerts in traditional halls, classical music is also being played in more informal settings - and in combination with different types of music. WRTI’s Susan Lewis investigates LiveConnections, which conducts programs at World Café Live in Philadelphia and Wilmington.
LEWIS: Hearing great music performed up close can be a life-changing experience. That’s the premise of LiveConnections, where Melinda Steffy is general manager.
STEFFY: We focus a lot on collaborations with musicians across genres and try to push the boundaries of music, so it's both very compelling and very accessible for a diverse range of people.
A Bach prelude, for example, might be played straight, then again in a jazz style.
LEWIS: This philosophy drives three programs: Bridge Sessions, in partnership with other organizations, presents interactive performances for adults with special needs and groups of students. ClassicAlive is a concert series for the general public with classical music performed with other genres in an intimate setting. Curator Mary Javian says the concerts expand the boundaries of repertoire, collaboration, and atmosphere.
JAVIAN: We’re bringing classical musicians of a very high level into a club. Asking them to perform while people might have a drink, or might have a meal. But what we find is that the audiences are extremely engaged, because they’re getting an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise.
LEWIS: A third program, Live Studio, aims to use state-of-the-art video technology to connect underserved populations who cannot make it to the venue.
Music lives in Lancaster, Pa., at a theater that - over the course of its more than 160 years - has served as a vaudeville venue, a cinema, and today, a stage reserved for musical theater and plays. WRTI’s Jim Cotter takes us to a historic opera house…that has never really housed opera.
Since its opening in 1852, Fulton Opera House in Lancaster County has remained open – making it one of the oldest continuously operating theater buildings in the nation. However, noted local playwright Barry Kornhauser, who also worked at the Fulton for over 30 years, says that despite its name it was never known as a place to hear your favorite arias.
This was called an opera house in those days because theaters still had an iffy reputation. “Opera House” sounded a little more impressive. But it wasn’t strictly opera? It was never really opera at all. That was tradition of the time. People were railing against theater…so they thought, theater owners, that if they called the places opera houses, they could fool some of the people some of the time.
Now the building is better known to most as the Fulton Theater; a company that produces seven full productions and four family shows each season. And despite the theater’s rich history, Managing Director Aaron Young says the company is committed to a contemporary mission.
We’re not a museum. We honor what has been done in the past, but it’s all about, how do we move forward? How do we communicate with an audience now? How do we remain relevant in an era that has a lot of different options for people’s leisure time? We no longer have a monopoly like we did back in the 1800s when the theater was built.
In addition to their stage productions, the Fulton also engages in various community and accessibility programs. Offering outreach to local schools, ASL Interpretation, Open Captioning, Audio Description, and our Assistive Listening devices for the hearing impaired, and their annual Pennsylvania High School theater Festival. More than a century-and-a-half after it began, the Fulton Opera House continues to be a community focal point where theater blossoms and music lives.
Today, orchestra audiences know the concertmaster as the violinist who precedes the conductor onstage, and helps the orchestra tune – a sign that the concert is about to begin. WRTI’s Susan Lewis discovered that the position carried duties both onstage and off.
LEWIS: The concertmaster is foremost the first chair of the first violins, a section that often carries the melody. Philadelphia Orchestra Concertmaster David Kim says his musical duties include setting bowing patterns for the strings.
KIM: Let me use the slow movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusic. First I’m going to use a long bow and try to capture as many notes as I can without changing the bow. If I decided, okay, well, I think we need more bow so I’m going to have us change bow - the direction that we change the bow - many times. Then suddenly it will sound like I’m singer. Here’s one that I’m breaking the bow as it were.
LEWIS: There are plenty of nonmusical duties as well. On a typical day, Kim checks in with the conductor before they start rehearsal.
KIM: If it’s Yannick, go in and say hello, anything Maestro, last second, that you need to talk about? If it's a guest conductor, welcome them to town; do they need a restaurant recommendation? Do they need to know where to buy concert socks? Just anything, please depend on their concertmaster.
LEWIS: Kim serves as liason between the conductor and members of the Orchestra. He makes public appearances on behalf of the Orchestra, and the music director, if he is not available.
This week, in 1722, an audience at London’s Stationers’ Hall first heard the now-famous Baroque suite commissioned for a king’s ceremonial boat ride on the River Thames. WRTI's Meridee Duddleston listens to Handel’s Water Music...in winter.
Born in Germany, George Frideric Handel moved to Britain as a young man and spent his most productive years there. He enjoyed the favor of the German-born King George I, and became a naturalized British subject in his early 40s. Handel's Water Music stands alongside his Messiah and Music for the Royal Fireworks as the best-known works of a composer who went from operas to oratorios.
DUDDLESTON: Music is a living thing. Along with a conductor’s interpretation, the performance of a composition reflects the sensibilities of the times. A work can also grow in influence far beyond what it enjoyed during a composer’s lifetime. Water Music, so associated with George Frideric Handel, probably wasn’t an 18th-century blockbuster.
ZOHN: It would have been regarded at the time as kind of a relatively minor, obscure work by Handel. Nothing like it is today, where it’s one of Handel’s big hits.
DUDDLESTON: Temple University Music History Professor Steven Zohn, an expert on Baroque music, says King George I liked the hour-long work so well that he had the musicians play it three times. But five years later, when it was performed inside, no program survived; whether the audience heard all or just parts remains murky.
ZOHN: There was no full score for a long time. And, probably, Handel just kind of kept it close to his vest, you know, not wanting to let it out –because perhaps he had other ideas of how it could be used.
DUDDLESTON: Later, during Handel’s lifetime, the 22 movements in the original single sequence were grouped together by key and instrumentation. And today, parts have played a role in television, movies, and advertisements. But Zohn says an undated score discovered in London in 2004 reinforces that Handel first conceived the work as a single composition to accompany one long, languorous cruise down the river.
The story of Cremona's rise to pre-eminence as the epicenter for the creation of great cellos, violas and violins begins with Nicola Amati in the early 17th century. He is credited with being one of the Cremonesi luthieri who gave the modern violin its profile. Yet today he is not the household name that two of his students, and their descendants, have become.
Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri were both Amati apprentices. Stradivarius would become immediately recognized for his mastery, but not until two generations later would Andrea’s grandson Bartolommeo Giuseppe Guarneri or Guarneri del Jesu, place his family name along side that of Stradivarius. Confused? Don’t worry, says Christopher Germain, an internationally renowned Philadelphia-based violin maker.
We don’t know all of the exact connections because there are some missing links in church records and so forth, but when we consider that there were these three great clans working within a very small area raised the standard to a point where it had never been before or since.
Yet no one has been able to identify one particular factor that made this one city produce so many great instrument makers or why we’ve been unable to emulate their brilliance.
It would be like saying that if I had the same painting materials as Michelangelo, then I could probably reproduce the Sistine Chapel which is complete nonsense. These guys were geniuses and were at the top of their game
This week we celebrate the birthday of one of the middle generation of Guarneri instrument makers. Pietro Giovanni or Pietro da Mantua, the father or maybe the uncle of Guarneri Del Jesu was born in Cremona in 1655.
It’s not settled whether 19th-century pianist and composer Frederic Chopin was born on February 22nd, or March 1st, 1810. But as Susan Lewis reports, one thing that’s clear is that he made a significant mark on music in his short life of just under 40 years.
LEWIS: Born in Poland and raised in Warsaw, Frederic Chopin’s virtuosity was recognized early. As a young man, he went to Paris and joined a community of like-minded performers and artists, including the female writer who took the name George Sand, with whom he had an extended love affair. University of Pennsylvania Music Professor Jeffrey Kallberg says Paris was a mecca for pianists who typically performed their own music.
KALLBERG: Liszt being one, but people like Frederick Kaltbrenner, Theodore Durler, people we tend to forget these days. Chopin fit in with these, but what really set him apart was the extraordinary quality of what he composed.
LEWIS: Kallberg says Chopin preferred the craft and counterpoint of Bach and Mozart to the styles of his musical contemporaries, many of whom were writing program music that followed a story line. Instead of writing for the piano as a pure melodic instrument, Chopin, would allow it to blur sounds together.
KALLBERG: ...and to produce a sort of sonic haze that looks forward to a composer like Debussy, for example. I’m thinking of in a work like the Nocturne in c sharp minor , which is a work unlike most nocturnes seems not to have a lyrical melody at the beginning, what you have is a melody that moves scarcely at all.
What you hear is just chords undulating and a mood being set without any melody to hang onto.. so he was rethinking what forms and genres were about by putting emphasis on new kinds of sounds.
LEWIS: Kallberg is author of Chopin at the Boundaries: Sex, History and Musical Genre.