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.
For decades, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, or PCMS, has been feeding the region's growing musical appetite with increasing numbers of concerts. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, PCMS grew out of the celebrated Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, where gifted classical musicians have been playing chamber music since 1951.
Lewis: Building on the success of the summer programs, in 1965, Marlboro leaders established concert series in New York, Boston, Princeton and Philadelphia, where the primary office was located. Longtime Marlboro co-administrator and PCMS founder Tony Checchia:
Checchia: For those concerts to have more exposure and for the young artists to have an opportunity to have the experience of touring, they would form what they called Music from Marlboro.
Lewis: For two decades, Music from Marlboro presented four or five concerts a year in various venues around the city, including Moore College, the Walnut Street Theater and the Seaport Museum. But PCMS Executive Director Philip Maneval says Philadelphians wanted more:
Maneval: Groups like the Juilliard quartet and Beaux Arts trio. There was a small group of very devoted music lovers who were regularly traveling to up to New York, or on their way down to Washington to hear these wonderful ensembles.
Lewis: And so, in 1986, The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society was born.
Checchia: There are wonderful artists who would never have appeared in Philadelphia if a series like this hadn't been developed. For instance, Horshevsky, who was a great artist, his last concert was for us at the Seaport Museum.
Later this year we’ll mark the Richard Wagner bicentennial, but it was this week in 1883 that the great German composer died. As WRTI’s Jim Cotter reports, in his later years, Wagner would write a piece of orchestral music commissioned by a Philadelphian and premiered in the city.
Wagner was 69 years of age when he passed. He had spent his last years raising money to establish a permanent home to showcase his works in the Northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth. To this end when the American Centennial celebrations of 1876 wanted a march to celebrate the role of German Americans in the history of the country, a Philadelphia socialite Elizabeth Gillespie sought the counsel of the German-born conductor Theodore Thomas. He suggested the $5000 commission be offered to Wagner. Wagner gratefully accepted, and delivered the work. Temple Art History professor Therese Dolan, who has written a book about the intersection of music and the visual arts in 19th century Paris says Wagner’s Grand March is not one of his grandest works.
You can tell that his heart wasn’t in it. He was building Bayreuth, so he charged five thousand dollars for this twelve minute piece of music and it was played when Roosevelt came to the Worlds’ Fair.
And though it’s been rarely played since, whatever the piece lacked in musical quality it made up for with typical Wagnerian bombast.
A hundred and fifty piece orchestra and then he also wanted a canon to be set off at the end of it. Critics felt there was no American feeling in it. Well what did they expect? They commissioned a German to do it.
Therese Dolan’s book Artworks of the Future: Manet, Wagner and Liszt will be published later this year.
This week Opera Philadelphia presents the East Coast premiere of Silent Night, the Pulitzer Prize winning opera by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell. As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns reports, it promises anything but stand-and-sing performances at the Academy of Music.
Silent Night’s depiction of a World War I Christmas Eve truce is inevitably preceded by battles on a raked, revolving stage. The model was the movie Saving Private Ryan, though director Eric Simonson admits singers can’t be dismembered onstage.
But you can stab them for a really, really long time with a bayonet. You can strangle them with a shovel. And that’s what we did… We want them to feel what the warriors are feeling.
The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns speaks with Silent Night Director, Eric Simonson about the critically acclaimed opera by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell.
The piece begins innocently enough with a quasi-Mozartean duet, interrupted by the declaration of war. The story traffics in similar territory to the PBS series Downton Abbey, though Silent Night was well underway first – with a fundamentally different focus says composer Kevin Puts.
The war is the main character. It’s ever present and the reason all this conflict exists.
One daring, personal touch is how much of the opera is, in fact, quiet, especially at the end. Librettist Campbell wants audiences to contemplate what they’ve just seen.
The way Kevin ends it with those beautiful notes and it’s snowing. It really succeeds at what we’re trying to say…you have to know when to use two or three notes per square inch and when you need 3000 notes per square inch
Puts and Campbell are now adapting The Manchurian Candidate, and later, will write something for Opera Philadelphia’s Perelman Theater series that’s even darker and….hasn’t been announced yet.
Music lives in West Philadelphia, home of Play on Philly, a program modeled after Venezuela’s El Sistema, in which under-served children are taught to play classical music. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, the program is as much about social change as it is about music.
Lewis: Pictures at an Exhibition was the music behind a life-changing moment for trumpet player Stanford Thompson, who was a student at Curtis rehearsing the Mussorgsky work with visiting conductor Simon Rattle:
Thompson: He finally stopped the orchestra and he said, you guys sound like robots. Everything’s perfect, mechanical, in tune. He said, there’s a group of students in Venezuela who could outplay you all any day.
Lewis: After graduating from Curtis, Thompson went to Venezuela to study El Sistema. He returned to Philadelphia, and founded Play on Philly, which he describes as a social program:
Thompson: I think putting kids in an orchestra, having them play with one another, is one of the best ways for them to co-exist in the same space. For them all to have a voice, but not be a jumble of noise. I also think it can build a lot of pride within each child, within their families, and within the community. That’s the main goal of what we do.
Lewis: Music, says Thompson, is an ideal vehicle to teach the kind of responsibility that can change lives:
Thompson: It’s the only art form that I know that you can put 100 – 200 – 300 people in a room with a common goal. Even on a spiritual level, there are things you can’t really express in words, and I think that emotion can come out of these instruments. That’s why I think music is unique.
Lewis: Play on Philly currently has 27 teaching artists, working with 225 students at 2 schools.
A large work of art, which for decades was hidden beneath Middle Eastern soil, is now on view in Philadelphia. As WRTI’s Jim Cotter reports, the ancient Roman floor mosaic is destined for a new Museum in Israel.
The 50-foot long, 27-foot wide, multi-colored geometric mosaic was in excellent condition when it was discovered three feet underground by workmen widening a road in Lod, near Tel Aviv in 1996.
The floor, believed to be part of a Roman home from about 300 AD, was then reburied to preserve it until 2009, when it could be properly excavated and conserved.
Brian Rose, curator of the Mediterranean section of the Penn Museum says the mosaic, which features animals and fish but no people, gives no clues as to the religious or cultural background of its original owner.
And though the background of the owner of the piece is unclear what is obvious is that he was rich and that he made his money in a trade peculiar to this period in Roman history.
Rose states, "It looks as if the owner may have been involved in the wild animal export industry wherein one would have agents going into Africa and the Near East to find the most exotic animals possible and those animals would be shipped off to Israel. So whoever this man was, he obviously got rich selling animals to the gladiatorial games industry."
The Penn Museum is the last stop on the mosaic’s US tour, during which it has been taken apart and reassembled for each venue.
Unearthing a Masterpiece: A Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel, is at the Penn Museum through May 12th.
This year's "One Book, One Philadelphia" choice gives voice to an American history story that's not widely known. The author of this year’s Free Library of Philadelphia selection spoke with WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston about her novel - The Buddha in the Attic.
Through mid-March the Free Library brings readers together to create new connections and understanding through literature. Author Julie Otsuka says she's not prescriptive about what readers take away from her short novel. Read it and decide for yourself.
DUDDLESTON: Author Julie Otsuka tells the story of first generation Japanese-American women who crossed the Pacific in the early 1900s as new wives of men known to them only through pictures and letters. She depicts their steely bravery and how they come to grips with a reality that's a world away from what they expect.
OTSUKA: I’m just, I’m kind of interested in fate. You’re just assigned a mate pretty much at random and you have to make it work with that man. There was no going back for these young girls because they were too poor to afford the ship passage back home.
Listen to a longer conversation with Otsuka to hear about the evolution of her book, The Buddha in the Attic.
DUDDLESTON: The narrative is set against the backdrop of anti-Japanese prejudice that led to the government-run internment camps during WWII. The style, Otsuka says, is rhythmic - like the music of composer Steve Reich - compulsive, propulsive with a hypnotic beat.
MUSIC: Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint
OTSUKA: I kind of feel like that's something that I'm aspiring to do with language. I mean I feel like there’s this secret underground rhythmic grid that holds the story together that has nothing to plot or with character, but it just has to do with the sound of the language and where the accents fall literally on the words. Just the sound of words and language.
Listen to Susan's interview with Dolce Suono founder and artistic director, Mimi Stillman.
The Philadelphia-based chamber group Dolce Suono is known for exploring historical connections while pushing its art form into the future. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, Dolce Suono Founder Mimi Stillman believes that music is an integral part of life.
Lewis: In 2005, Stillman founded Dolce Suono, which she likens it to a repertory company.
Stillman: We form into different ensemble configurations, combinations, depending upon the repertoire we’re playing. One of our main ensembles is our trio of flute, cello, and piano with Yumi Kendall and Charlie Abramovic. We do music with flute, strings, and harp...we’ve been very active commissioning work for peirrot ensemble, which is a mixed grouping of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and percussion.
Lewis: To Stillman, who is also a music historian, music is more than notes and dynamic notations, however beautifully, or provocatively, arranged. It reflects a history – and history informs her performance.
Stillman: I think it's part of an approach to the world - not seeing every piece of music or every composer, every musical style in a vacuum. It's part of a rich tapestry of music, visual art, culture, the world of ideas.
Lewis: This year, Stillman and her ensemble are exploring the music of Debussy.
Stillman: It always enhances our performance to be approaching music from the most micro – what am I going to do with that note, that phrase? – to the most grand, sweeping –what is the context of Debussy and what do we want to say about that?
Lewis: Stilllman herself is in the midst of her year-long commitment to play Debussy’s short piece Syrinx, each day in different circumstances and venues, which she documents in videos online.
Coming up...Dolce Suono in concert at the Trinity Center for Urban life in Center City, Philadelphia, joined by Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera, on Sunday, February 17 at 3 pm.
LFC: For more on how history can inform innovative music making, listen to Susan’s interview with Mimi Stillman at WRTI.org.
The early 19th-century Italian composer Giochino Rossini composed nearly 40 operas before he turned 40. Later in life, he turned to other forms. And near the end of his life, he wrote a solemn mass for the dedication of a private chapel. As two local ensembles prepare performances, WRTI’s Susan Lewis explores Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle.
Lewis: In some ways, the work summarizes Rossini’s entire art, says Matthew Glandorf, artistic director of Choral Arts Philadelphia.
Glandorf : You get these beautiful, lovely, soaring, natural melodies that you would know from his operas, but you also see somebody who has an absolute mastery of interesting harmonies.
Lewis: Glandorf says you can see that Rossini was studying the music of his contemporaries.
Glandorf: Or shall we even say possibly the next generation. You really find that he's saying, hey look, I can also compose a fugue like the best of them....
Lewis: Choral Arts will perform the work on Saturday, February 9th and is engaging soloists who specialize in period vocal performance, among them Julianne Baird.
Lewis: Another interpretation will be offered later this month by the Philadelphia Singers, which Glandorf welcomes.
Glandorf: I’m hoping that that might open up a dialogue to say there are infinite number of possibilities to approach the interpretation of music, and actually that its radical to approach music differently.