Music lives on a leafy street in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood, where a former Philadelphia Orchestra percussionist and longtime teacher continues to share his talents as a musician and craftsman. WRTI’s Susan Lewis visits percussionist Alan Abel:
Lewis: Abel’s basement was long ago transformed into a studio where he teaches current students, and coaches former students for orchestra auditions.
Abel: I bought a five octave marimba to accommodate the students and auditionees. This came in pieces... Now, the timpani, that’s another story...This is an old old xylophone ...that’s an interesting bass drum.. and my bass drum stand, which I invented in the early to mid '60s.
Lewis: Today, orchestras all over the world use Abel’s suspended drum stands – as well as the triangles he began manufacturing 50 years ago. In a backyard workshop, Abel teaches groups of students to create triangle HOOKs – from coat hangers, plastic tubing, and fishing line – that hold the instrument just so.
Abel: I’ll show you what happens when you suspend it...Now I can play faster rhythms...I can also play rolls.
Learn more about Alan Abel’s philosophy on music.
Lewis: Three of the four members of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s current percussion section studied with Abel, including Principal Chris Deviney.
Deviney: Jan, his wife, offered you tea, and then you’d go down into the basement, or we’d call it the dungeon sometimes, and you’d have your lesson, and you felt really kind of like you were an extension of his family.
Lewis: Although he retired as a full time member in 1997, Abel continues to play with The Philadelphia Orchestra when it calls.
Dave Burrell talks with Susan Lewis about his jazz composition; how he got started composing, and how he approaches his commissions for the Rosenbach Museum and Library.
Internationally known jazz musician Dave Burrell is composer-in-residence at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, where he’s working on a multi-year project focused on the Rosenbach’s collection of civil war artifacts.
Each year has a theme: the first was Civil War Heroes, the second, Civilian Life. This year, Burrell’s compositions interpret turning points in the war. WRTI’s Susan Lewis explores Dave Burrell's journey in jazz composition.
You know it when you hear it. This week, WRTI pays special attention to the historic expansion, 323 years ago, of the woodwind family - the addition of the clarinet.
DUDDLESTON: The unmistakable sound of the cat from Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf speaks to young and old. But without the inventiveness of a German instrument maker named Johann Christoph Denner back near the end of the 1600s, it would not have been heard.
Professor Emily Threinen of Temple's Boyer College of Music and Dance says there were reasons the sound of the clarinet was so novel.
THREINEN: What was different from other wind instruments at that time was that it had a single reed on a mouthpiece, unlike the oboe which has a double reed.
DUDDLESTON: In the next century it evolved from a single low-register instrument to one with two. But it took some time for the clarinet to move up in the musical world. Originally, the woodwinds didn't have the status of the strings.
THREINEN: Wind instruments and wind players in the early forms and early design of wind instruments themselves were really attributed to more of the common person, or someone who was just sort of an entertainer and would pull out their flute and play "folksy-type" music around the pit fire.
DUDDLESTON: Today, the modern clarinet in the hands of a jazz or classical musician is a completely different proposition.
THREINEN: Right now clarinets can play very bright and shrill quite easily, but to produce a really dark, resonant, beautiful quality of sound itself is, I think, the greatest challenge of the instrument.
Philadelphia Museum of Art Curator of American Art Kathleen Foster talks with Susan Lewis about artist Alexander "Sandy" Calder.
One family name spans three generations of Philadelphia’s artistic heritage; each with an artist who has left his own mark on the city. WRTI’s Susan Lewis looks at the impact of three Calders – all, incidentally, named Alexander.
Alexander Milne Calder crafted over 200 figures for City Hall, which is topped by his 23-ton, 37-foot tall statue of William Penn. During a cleaning in 2007, conservator David Cann took us to the very top of Penn’s hat:
CANN: And we can pop the top off so you can see how he’s built in sections...there are 47 sections of casting that are flange bolted together on the inside, so they could put him up here … they couldn’t put it up here in one piece...
From what was for years the tallest point in the city, one can look down at Logan Square’s Swann Fountain, whose figures were sculpted by Calder’s son, Alexander Stirling Calder. Looking up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the home of the large mobile Ghost, created by his grandson, Alexander "Sandy" Calder. Sandy Calder also created what are, in effect, tiny sculptures...jewelry:
FOSTER: He grew up in this legacy of sculpture...he couldn’t help it, he was making stuff out of everyday objects and scraps. All of them, in a way, are very interested in public art, and Calder grew into that, coming out of his background as an engineer and a kind of playful sense of art as part of daily life.
Jim Cotter speaks with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
WRTI will broadcast Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda live from The Metropolitan Opera on January 19th. The performance will also be shown live in hundreds of movie theaters around the world.
In this tale of royal intrigue, set in 16th-century England, the title role of Mary, Queen of Scots is sung by Joyce DiDonato. WRTI’s Jim Cotter spoke with the superstar mezzo-soprano about her latest role, how she constructs her characters, and how her years at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts were more useful personally and professionally than artistically.
Today, Joyce DiDonato is firmly ensconced on opera’s "A" list. But when she was training at AVA in the 1990s, such a future outcome seemed very unlikely.
DIDONATO: I wasn’t a star singer there and it wasn’t clear that I would go on and have a career, I had to go deep inside myself and ask do I still want to stay with this?
COTTER: So why did stick with it?
DIDONATO: I had to.
After Philadelphia, she had spells in the young artist programs at Santa Fe Opera and Houston Grand Opera where she says it all began to come together for her vocally.
COTTER: The voice started getting free and I started too find my voice, and that needed to happen. And happily it did and I continuously work to find more freedom.
DiDonato believes that in order to fully explore roles she needs to understand what the composer wanted, the historical context of the story and bring her own life experiences to the process of creating a fully fleshed-out character.
DIDONATO: The pain that I’ve gone through, in various ways, it always comes out of nowhere and socks you over the head. Of course I use that. It informs who I am as a human being and therefore it informs who I am as an artist.
The hardest working people in show business, at least in the classical music world, can take a bow this week. As WRTI’s Jim Cotter reports, data on the busiest conductors and orchestras in 2012 shows The Philadelphia Orchestra maintaining its place in the top 10 ensembles, while the most active conductor began his professional career in the Philadelphia region.
The survey was undertaken by the website BachTrack.com, which found that for the third year in a row, Beethoven was the most performed of all composers with Arvo Part the most performed living composer.
Predictably, Mozart and Bach came in 2nd and 3rd, but it was not a good year for Mahler who slipped from 9th to 25th - and Liszt who fell from the 6th to the 24th. Their places in the top 10 were taken by Debussy and Schumann.
The busiest conductor in the world last year was Alan Gilbert whose first music directorship appointment was with Camden’s Symphony in C in the early 1990s. The orchestra he currently directs, the New York Philharmonic, was also, not surprisingly the busiest orchestra in the world, taking over the top spot from the San Francisco Symphony. The Philadelphia Orchestra came in at 9th; slipping one place from last year.
In repertoire, the top three most-performed operas were all by Mozart - two of which had librettos by the one-time Pennsylvania resident Lorenzo Da Ponte. The Magic Flute was at number one followed by Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro.
And finally, the most-performed works in 2012 were, in ascending order: 3) Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, 2) Bruckner's Symphony No. 4, and in the top spot, 1) Handel's Messiah.
Nicholas McGegan talks about his different conducting style with Jim Cotter.
The renowned British conductor and early music expert Nicholas McGegan's 63rd birthday is January 14th. As WRTI’s Jim Cotter discovered, he’s a musician with a special talent for talking about music.
Nicholas McGegan’s uncomplicated, witty discourses on the works of the great composers have made him an in-demand speaker at places such as Oxford, Cambridge, and London’s Royal College of Music. What does he say is his reason for mostly conducting without a baton? He’s a klutz. "The less things I have to drop, throw, or break, the better."
In truth, says McGegan, his focus on Baroque, and early romantic repertoire means that his communication with the musicians has a different goal to those doing later and modern works.
MCGEGAN: Generally, when I'm doing the kind of music I d,o which is essentially 17th, 18th and 19th century music, the beat is fairly stable. So I don't have to do those fancy beat patterns that (you) have to do if you're doing The Rite of Spring. We don't have to count in eleven, I'm not sure I can count to 11! What I am doing is trying to communicate the gestures in the music - and hopefully there's enough of a beat that the orchestra can play together.
COTTER: Often he leads not from the podium, but as an instrumentalist, which presents a different set of challenges.
MCGEGAN: When I'm working with, say, a period instrument orchestra, I'm very often playing the harpsichord as well. And so if I were to use a baton I'd have to put it between my teeth, and then I would probably look like Carmen with a rose.
The world-renowned harpist Ann Hobson Pilot - a Settlement graduate - talks with Susan Lewis.
More than 100 years ago, a settlement house in the Southwark section of Philadelphia provided services to immigrants, from English lessons to sewing classes. Soon it began offering music lessons, a mission it continues today.
In 1914, Settlement became an independent music school. And in 1917, it moved into what is still its main branch: the Mary Louise Curtis Building at 5th and Queen Streets. On a typical Saturday, the building is alive with the sounds of kids at play - playing music that is:
Kid 1: I take ballet, violin and I go to music workshop.
Kid 2: I play recorder and drums.
Kid 3: I play in a quartet, with piano, cello, violin and viola..
While its conservatory division became the nucleus of the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924, Settlement continued to offer instruction at all musical levels from beginner to pre-professional. Over the years, it has influenced hundreds of people who have gone onto success in various fields. Among them: Twister Chubby Checker, composer Michael Bacon, and the late Star Wars Director Irvin Kershner:
KERSHNER: I consider film as music, because its rhythmic, it has repeats, it has movements..
BACON: So Settlement to me was always a relaxed fun place to be, which is what you want to provide to children with music
CHUBBY CHECKER: Little did I know the things I’d learn there I’d be using in my music career, far beyond my expectations..
Today, in addition to its main building, Settlement has branches in Germantown, the Northeast, Willow Grove, West Philadelphia, and Camden.
From the perspective of U.S. audiences, the British pianist Imogen Cooper was a late bloomer. Though this student of Alfred Brendell had been working steadily in the UK for decades, she was in her 50s before America became aware of this most eloquent interpreter of the classical repertoire.
Jim Cotter speaks with Berks Opera founder/directors Francine and Tamara Black.
Follow the Schuylkill westwards from Philadelphia - either the river or the expressway will do - and you’ll eventually arrive in Reading, Pa. The state’s fifth-largest city, John Philip Sousa spent his last days here, the Rabbit series by John Updike was set here, and, Reading once lent its name to a now-defunct railway company with a still well-known Philadelphia terminal.
Today, it is best known for its outlet malls, its pagoda, and a wealth of regional cultural organizations including the Reading Symphony Orchestra, the Reading Public Museum, and the increasingly influential Berks Opera Workshop (BOW).
Listen to Jim Cotter's interview with BOW co-founders Francine Black and her daughter Tamara Black.