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April 2015
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WFMT’s Top 10 Reads on World Book Day

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Today is World Book Day, a yearly event celebrated worldwide on April 23rd and organized by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. Looking for a good read to celebrate World Book Day? We at WFMT have picked some of our favorite reads to share with you.

lisztfranz-walkerFranz Liszt, by Alan Walker

This three-volume set about Liszt is by the far the best out there and goes into engrossing detail about every aspect of his life and career. And yet, it remains very readable without getting bogged down in minutiae or analysis. If you love Liszt, you have to have this set!

(Peter Van de Graaff, Chief Announcer)

bach wolffJohann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff

One of the preeminent Bach scholars of our time, Christoph Wolff, condenses a lifetime of scholarship in this very accessible biography of J.S. Bach.

(Carl Grapentine, Morning Program Host)

Music for Silenced VoicesMusic for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets,
by Wendy Lesser

This book is a whirlwind look at how strange and unpredictable Russian / Soviet society was in the 20th century and how these 15 quartets can serve as portals into that world.

(Tony Macaluso, Director, Marketing & Network Syndication)

theater of the MindTheater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama, by Neil Verma

This book explores how radio creates more than just sound, it creates imagery using the audiences’ imagination. This book surveys the early history of American radio drama, and poses questions about the decline of this unique genre.

(Sarah Zwinklis, Distribution Assistant)

imaginary museumThe Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, by Lydia Goehr

Though published over 20 years ago, this philosophical study about music remains one of the most interesting and influential works of its kind today. Goehr’s book will change the way you play, hear, and think about music.

(Stephen Raskauskas, Associate Interactive Content Producer)

poetics of musicPoetics of Music In the Form of Six Lessons, by Igor Stravinsky

From the Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, 1942, this book has exceptionally crafted lectures that both provide insight into Stravinsky’s style and aesthetic, while also showing his sharp sense of criticism and his understanding of the process of writing music.

(Estlin Usher, Station Relations Manager)

Opera Lover's CookbookThe Opera Lover’s Cookbook: Menus for Elegant Entertaining,
by Francine Segan and Mark Thomas

I love this book because it celebrates two of my favorite things: grand opera and grand cooking! The book contains menus composed to accompany your favorite operas with dishes that are sure to leave your guests singing! Bon appétit!

(Suzanne Nance, Program Host)

mozart a lifeMozart: A life, by Maynard Solomon

Maynard Solomon’s background as a music producer and co-founder of Vanguard Records brings insightful writing with a unique understanding of music to his many books. My son – a Jazz musician- and I – a classical music nerd – both agree that his best book is Mozart: A life. Maynard’s writing sits me down right next to Mozart while he plays and composes, opening up both my mind and my ears.

(Cydne Gillard, Program Producer)

rest is noiseThe Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross

Although it is filled with enough anecdotes about the major figures in twentieth century music to write a dissertation, this book by Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, reads like a novel. Whether you are new to classical music or a seasoned aficionado, Ross creates a clear narrative arc to help guide the reader in exploring an exciting and complicated era in music history.

(Michael San Gabino, Production Assistant)

anguish and triumphAnguish and Triumph, by Jan Swafford

It’s a hefty 1,000 pages that chronicles every aspect of Beethoven’s life, from the personal struggles he dealt with to the myth that built around him even during his lifetime. What I found most interesting is the way Swafford puts Beethoven’s music in the context of the larger historical and artistic forces of the period.

(Lisa Flynn, Program Host)

CSO’s Interdisciplinary Collaborations Bring Music to Young Audiences

CSO Family Matinee performances allow audiences to get up close and personal with the musicians and their instruments (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Once Upon a Symphony is fun even for the youngest music lovers (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Though children today can access more multimedia entertainment than ever before, nothing can replace the original multimedia experience: attending a live performance. This spring, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has teamed up with the Chicago Children’s Theatre and Hubbard Street Dance to present interdisciplinary programs for audiences of all ages. Whether you’re a seasoned concert goer, or can’t tell Bach from Brahms, the CSO’s upcoming Tchaikovsky Spectacular and Once Upon a Symphony programs offer fun for everyone.

Once Upon a Symphony is fun even for the youngest music lovers (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Once Upon a Symphony is fun and engaging, even for the youngest music lovers (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Once Upon A Symphony with the Chicago Children’s Theater

Story time just got more musical with Once Upon A Symphony, an interactive program developed by the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute and the Chicago Children’s Theatre.

This season, two different Once Upon a Symphony programs present two classic stories, The Little Red Hen and Jack and the Beanstalk, in performances at Symphony Center and at the McAninch Arts Center at College of Dupage.

Jon Weber, the Institute’s Director of Learning Programs, said that Once Upon a Symphony began in 2009, “when we first started our relationship with Yo-Yo Ma as the Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant.”

Existing family programming provided families enriching experiences, but “didn’t give a chance to feature the musicians and the musicianship that is core to our mission. So, we started the process of researching and testing and piloting what became Once Upon a Symphony.” He describes the performances as “a multilayered experience of learning through stories.”

Though stories are the centerpieces of each Once Upon a Symphony program, they are supported with accessible pieces of classical music and newly composed songs that bookend each performance.

“In Jack in the Beanstalk, we use excerpts from Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King to portray this chase between the giant and Jack in the castle,” Weber explained. “In The Little Red Hen, we use an excerpt from Carnival of the Animals, ‘The Hens,’ for the introduction to those characters.”

After enjoying a Chicago Children’s Theater production that Weber described as “saturated with images and participation and music,” he was eager to work with the company to foster the same kinds of connections between artist and audience.

Actress and writer Megan Wells has helped develop most of the Once Upon a Symphony presentations, and narrates the current production of Jack and the Beanstalk.

She said that over the years, everyone involved has worked “to find just the right balance to get the little ones involved, so there’s plenty of play and physical movement, and yet at the same time to pull the parents and grandparents into the experience.”

Hubbard Street 2 Dancer Katie Kozul, left, in Glimpse Through Glass with HS2 Director Terence Marling and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Alastair Willis conducting. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Hubbard Street 2 Dancer Katie Kozul, left, in Glimpse Through Glass with HS2 Director Terence Marling and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Alastair Willis conducting. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Tchaikovsky Spectacular with Hubbard Street Dance

If any music was made for dancing, it is the music of Tchaikovsky. His ballets are so iconic that they’ve become a part of popular culture. But even his symphonies seem to dance.

Hubbard Street Dance returns to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May to present a program of music and dance, the Tchaikovsky Spectacular, as part of its Family Matinee series.

The Spectacular includes excerpts from the composer’s most beloved ballets (The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet), five movements from four of his symphonies, and the Elégie from the Serenade for Strings in C Major.

Members of Hubbard Street 2 (HS2), the company’s training program that prepares young adults for careers in contemporary dance, perform during eight of the nine works on the program.

HS2 Director Terence Marling said that for this piece, “The dancers have worked to create the steps. I’m working more of a producer than anything else.”

“We didn’t go the route of a pantomime or story ballet,” he said, “but we did create interactions and ideas of posture and gesture and ways of communicating ideas that are very clear.” The dancers tell an overarching story in which the protagonist is always changing.

Though the performance is meant to be accessible, Marling insisted, “We did not dumb down the dance. We wanted this to be challenging for the dancers to perform, just as the music is challenging for the orchestra.”

Though Tchaikovsky’s music is known for its accessibility, by introducing dance into the performance, Marling says he hopes the dancers “can help the audience can hear in a different way.”

CSO Family Matinee performances allow audiences to get up close and personal with the musicians and their instruments (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

CSO Family Matinee performances allow audiences to get up close and personal with the musicians and their instruments (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

For more information about the CSO’s upcoming family programming, including a range of pre-and-post-concert activities you can enjoy regarding the events mentioned above, visit:



VIDEO: Acrobatic Coloratura Takes “Der Hölle Rache” to New Heights

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The Queen of the Night’s famous aria “Der Hölle Rache” (“The wrath of hell”) is not just one of the most popular pieces in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, it’s one of the most well-known works in all of classical music because it requires such impressive vocal acrobatics.

Soprano Rainelle Krause has introduced another kind of acrobatics to her performance of this beloved aria – she performs it while suspended from aerial silks.

Performing aerial silk has become more popular in part due to Cirque du Soleil, the internationally renowned circus company that features this style of acrobatics frequently in its performances.

Though opera was once seen as an art form where sopranos come on stage merely to “park and bark,” today’s opera artists embrace a variety of theatrical styles and are more willing than ever to take risks.

While some performers might not be willing to suspend themselves from the ceiling without the use of safety lines, imagine what kinds of productions directors could dream up if more sopranos were equipped with Krause’s skills!

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Soundscapes Evoke Iceland’s Otherworldly Terrain

Tónlistin togar stöðugt í mig

Tónlistin togar stöðugt í mig

A country of volcanoes and glaciers, fjords and auroras, Iceland is one of the most remarkable places on earth.

The country’s almost otherworldly landscapes have inspired Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s latest work, In the Light of Air, a commission created for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

ICE, hailed by the New York Times as “one of the most accomplished and adventurous groups in new music,” premiered Thorvaldsdottir’s work at the 2014 Reykjavik Arts Festival. ICE performed the American premiere during the 2014 Mostly Mozart Festival.

The ensemble brings In the Light of Air to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago for one night only, April 25, 2015.

“Of course, the piece can be played by anybody, but it was really written for these musicians,” Thorvaldsdottir said in a Skype interview. “It’s been wonderful being able to create a work specifically for them. They’re amazing.”

The musicians of ICE are so extraordinary, in fact, that they were willing to work with an instrument that Thorvaldsottir developed specifically for this piece: an installation of plate-like metal ornaments called Klakabönd, which literally means “a bind of ice” in Icelandic (see video below).

Thorvaldsottir worked with her friend and colleague Svana Jósepsdóttir to build an installation of Klakabönd that lend an icy, gong-like timbre to the score, and visually, recall glistening shards of ice.

Though the Klakabönd installation is one of the most curious aspects of In the Light of Air, the composer also includes extended techniques on traditional instruments (viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion) as well as electronics to create a soundscape as exceptional as Iceland’s natural environment.

“Iceland is a big island where most people live along the coast. But you go just a little bit towards the center and you find mountains, lava fields… There are  these vast expanses of nature that are basically untouched.”

The composer became particularly aware of Iceland’s unique geography when she traveled to San Diego to complete her PhD. “Sometimes you don’t realize what makes a place so special until you are no longer there,” she said.

While inspired by her native Iceland, Thorvaldsottir strove not to merely mimic sounds she heard in the wild, but to focus on ways that sound can reflect larger concepts.

She is interested especially by the ways time and spaces operate in the natural world, and how she can build layers of sound that play with our perceptions of time and space themselves.

Unique lighting design that Thorvaldsottir developed for the piece in conjunction with Nick Houfek add another layer of meaning which is also reflected in its title.

During performances of In the Light of Air, air becomes light – literally. The luminosity of the light installation the two created undergoes changes based upon the intensity of the musicians’ breath. (WATCH video below for more info.)

Thorvaldsottir explained, “It doesn’t look that technical. But it is quite technical” However, with careful planning, she was able to incorporate these effects in a way that is subtle yet dramatic.

For more information about In the Light of Air, visit the composer’s website.

For more information about the upcoming performance at the MCA or to purchase tickets, visit the MCA’s website.






Julia Wolfe Wins 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music


Julia Wolfe received the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her composition “Anthracite Fields,” just announced at 3:00 pm EST.

Judges described Wolfe’s work as a “powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th Century.”

Julia Wolfe, born 1958, is an American composer who graduated from the University of Michigan.

The other finalists in the category were Lei Liang for “Xiaoxiang” and John Zorn for “The Aristos.”

For a video of the announcement, which took place earlier today, click here.


VIDEO: 7 of Frederica von Stade’s Favorite Memories

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Legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade shared some of her of favorite memories in a backstage interview at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, just after rehearsals for A Coffin in Egypt at Chicago Opera Theater.

In A Coffin in Egypt, von Stade portrays an elderly woman who lives in Egypt, Texas, but who longs for her younger days traveling the world, including to the real Egypt.

Von Stade, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1970, reflects on her own younger days in this video interview, sharing some of the most magical, memorable, and hilarious moments she has had in her decades long career.


VIDEO: French Jugglers Play Bach on Boomwhackers

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Les Objects Volants, a French juggling company, has transformed one of the most popular pieces of classical music, the Prelude No. 1 in C major from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, using Boomwhackers.

Les Objects Volants proves that Boomwhackers, musical tubes made to play certain pitches when they are struck, aren’t merely toys with their tour-de-force performance.

Though many of the work in the Well-Tempered Clavier are some of the most difficult in the keyboard repertoire, Prelude No. 1 is easy enough for a beginner to play.

But, Les Objects Volants has used this elegant yet emotive Prelude as a way to show their virtuosity with a different art: juggling.


INFOGRAPHIC: The Great American Musical Moves to the Opera House


Carousel, currently running in a new production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, is one of many American musicals popping up at opera houses around the globe. Before Lyric, the Glimmerglass Opera revived this classic work by Rodgers and Hammerstein during its 2014 festival season. During the same summer season, Susan Graham starred in a new production of The King and I at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. These are only a few of many recent productions that confirm a growing trend:

The “Great American Musical” is moving into to the opera house.

In the post-recession economy, opera companies of all sizes are searching for ways to sustain their current audience while also developing and diversifying it. Classic American musicals are a natural programming choice for companies hoping to attract consumers who enjoy live spectacle, but may never have seen an opera.

The Chicago Tribune speculates that Lyric’s Carousel is Broadway bound, a move that the Chicago Business Journal notes would be sure to bring in a carnival of cash for the company. Carousel is one of the Rodgers and Hammerstein “Big Five,” which include Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music,  The King and I, and South Pacific, that Lyric is staging over five seasons as part of its American Musical Theater Initiative.

How has producing a single musical affected Lyric’s overall output as a production company in terms of total mainstage performances?

The number of different operas the Lyric produces has remained basically unchanged in the last decade. But, in ten seasons from 2006-07 to 2015-16, the number of opera performances during the regular subscription series has decreased,  while the number of musical performances has dramatically increased.


Lyric Opera of Chicago presents its seasons as integrated entities comprised of 9 mainstage productions and Lyric Unlimited productions, with the recent addition of musical performances as part of the American Musical Theater Initiative. The chart above refers specifically to mainstage productions. Student Matinee performances, Lyric Unlimited productions, and special concerts and events are not included in counts of total number of performances per season. Graphic by Jenny Macchione

During the 2006-07 season, Lyric produced 82 performances of 8 operas. During the 2013-14 season, however, the Lyric only produced 67 performances of 8 operas. Though the company produced a total of 91 performances on the main stage that season, a full 32% of those performances were of a musical, namely, The Sound of Music. Performances of The Sound of Music constituted approximately 1/3 of the company’s total performances on the main stage, and was the top-selling production in Lyric’s history.

There are some obvious financial reasons for producing such a large number of performance of musicals, considering they sell well, if the success of The Sound of Music is any indication.  Anthony Freud, Lyric’s General Director, declined to comment how the company’s American Musical Theater Initiative impacts fiscal goals and financial planning for future seasons.

In an interview last year with the New York Times , Mr. Freud said, “I’m not sure there is a clear definition between operas and musicals. If you distill it down to its basics, it’s about telling stories through music and words…But we’re also giving our audiences the chance to see and hear these musicals at a scale at which they were conceived.”

Carousel Rehearsal

Laura Osnes (Julie Jordan) and Steven Pasquale (Billy Bigelow) in Lyric’s Carousel. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Indeed, there’s something about these works that simply works in the today’s opera houses, since they can afford to give pieces like Carousel the musical production values they deserve.Today, opera houses employ orchestras larger than ensembles found in the pits of Broadway houses and in touring productions of musicals, which ask players to double up or even treble up on instruments, and in which synthesizers can produce a variety of sounds, too.

Carousel is one of most richly orchestrated scores in the Rogers and Hammerstein oeuvre, with effects that depict everything from the whirl of Billy Bigelow’s carousel to the blossoms falling that also symbolize Julie’s loss of innocence. In Carousel, the orchestra is fully integrated into the drama. The score is replete with such carefully considered underscoring that very few characters actually seem that they’re “bustin’ out all over” to sing. Rather, the characters are surrounded by sound, and become so overwhelmed with emotion that lyrical expression becomes not only natural, but necessary.

After minutes of dialogue over soft orchestral underscoring, characters slowly drop speech in favor of song-like recitative, finally reaching full-blown song. Such is the case in Act I, when Carrie Pipperidge speaks with her friend Julie Jordan after an altercation at the Carousel, then sings a speech-like introduction (“His name is Mr. Snow,”) to a lyrical expression of love about the man she’s going to marry (“When I marry Mr. Snow”).


Opera singer Denyce Graves plays Nettie Fowler in Lyric’s Carousel. Photo: Todd Rosenberg


And speaking of singing, a work like Carousel requires voices of operatic strength. In fact, John Raitt, who originated the role of Billy Bigelow, auditioned with “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Billy’s “Soliloquy,” a demanding and dramatic solo scene that usually clocks in at over eight minutes, requires the same amount of control and training to execute as some bel canto arias.

Carousel and other great American musicals have moved to the opera house not only because opera companies are hoping to sell tickets and balance budgets. The opera house has become the natural habitat for what has become an almost endangered species in an era of post-recession Broadway-style production.


How Silent Film Star Charlie Chaplin Changed Music


Though many know him primarily as one of America’s most iconic actors and comedians, Charlie Chaplin was also a musician who influenced leading composers like Debussy and Satie, created original scores for his films, and forever changed the history of music.

Born to two music hall singers, Chaplin received his musical training at an early age. During one of his first known stage appearances, he stepped in to sing a song for his mother, whose voice had just cracked and was no longer able to perform.

Later, he joined a clog dancing troupe called the Eight Lancashire Lads before touring the vaudeville circuit with one of Fred Karno’s sketch comedy companies, where his undeniably musical style of pantomime began to develop. Chaplin recalled:

“On this tour I carried my violin and cello. Since the age of sixteen I had practiced from four to six hours a day in my bedroom…As I played left handed, my violin was strung left handed with the bass bar and sounding post reversed.”

The left handed violinist could not read a note of music, however, and learned tunes by ear. Eventually, he said, “I realized that I could never achieve excellence [on the violin], so I gave it up.”

While touring, the young Chaplin encountered Debussy in Paris, and even heard his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in England, “where it was booed and the audience walked out.”

chaplin_playing_cello_widerThough Chaplin was barely 20 at the time, Debussy apprehended his incredible talent and remarked, “You are instinctively a musician and a dancer.” Later, the Ballets Russes, with which Debussy collaborated, would stage Parade, a ballet set to music by Satie which was heavily influenced by Chaplin.

Back in the United States, the Ziegfeld Follies produced a Chaplin inspired number in which the beautiful dancers were bedecked in moustaches, derby hats, and baggy trousers to match the famous performer.

Later, Chaplin founded the short lived Charles Chaplin Music Company, publishing a mere three songs before closing the business. Soon, however, he began creating music for his own film scores, with the help of assistants to transcribe melodies that he would sing and hum.


Chaplin said, “Sometimes a musician would get pompous with me, and I would cut him short: ‘Whatever the melody is, the rest is just a vamp.’ After putting music to one or two pictures I began to look at a conductor’s score with a professional eye and to know whether a composition was over-orchestrated or not. If I saw a lot of notes in the brass and woodwind section I would say: ‘That’s too black in the brass,’ or ‘too busy in the woodwinds’.”

The Gold Rush is perhaps his most famous score, which living composer Carl Davis has noted borrows from Wagner’s Evening Star from Tannhäuser, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz, a melody from a Brahms Intermezzo, and Wagner’s Ring theme for the gold itself.

The Gold Rush does not only borrow Wagner’s music, it borrows his technique of using leitmotifs as well. Ironically, however, when Chaplin saw Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera, the very first opera he saw live, he hated it at first.

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“I had never seen grand opera, only excerpts of it in vaudeville – and I loathed it. But now I was in the humor for it. I bought a ticket and sat in the second circle. The opera was in German and I did not understand a word of it, nor did I know the story. But when the dead Queen was carried on to the music of the Pilgrims’ chorus, I wept bitterly.”

Chaplin’s films, like Wagner’s scores, tend to link certain characters with certain musical themes, which change throughout the story given the particular scenario. In City Lights, there are nearly one hundred cues in which the performers must respond directly to the music.


Eventually Stravinsky approached Chaplin about a potential collaboration. Chaplin invented a scenario for Stravinsky that involved a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, which Stravinsky thought was sacrilegious, and ultimately the project never came to fruition.

Instead, Chaplin preferred to craft his own music for his films, and music played an integral role in them. His scores are often a pastiche of melodies including excerpts from classical scores, as described above, as well as waltzes, music hall ballads, tangos – an infinite variety of styles that he heard and adopted during his travels around the world on the vaudeville circuit.

Chaplin’s films create an almost perfect synthesis between sonic and visual elements, dramatically affecting the way film producers worked with music to tell stories. Most musical arrangers, Chaplin explained, “wanted the music to be funny. But I would explain that I wanted no competition, I wanted the music to be a counterpoint of grav[ity] and charm, to express sentiment, without which…a work of art is incomplete.”

3D Printing Brings Science to the Symphony Hall


With the advent of 3D printing, designers, musicians, and engineers have been able to create instruments that just years ago, no one could have ever dreamed up.

MONAD Studios has just unveiled their piezoelectric violin, an instrument with two strings, but which the designers claim still sounds and plays like a traditional violin.

Piezoelectricity, which passes naturally through substances such as quartz, has been used for decades.

Gramophones, for example, use piezoelectricity to recognize sounds when a needle presses against vinyl records, which then converts that pressure into electrical currents, and ultimately into sounds.

MONAD’s violin is one of several instruments they bring to the 3D print design show in New York, alongside a cello and two sizes of didgeridoo.

Designer Eric Goldemberg described why he wanted to create the piezoelectric violin in a recent interview with the BBC:

“Our desire to create unusual instruments emerged when we realised the aesthetic and technical issues we were facing as architects did not differ much from those of musicians and composers.”

“With each of our original instruments, a certain functionality and ergonomic structure is preserved: this is why we can call our violin a violin, our cello, a cello, and so forth.” He added, “There is a certain physical standard of componentry which must be maintained.”

Goldemberg said that he and the co-creators of the instrument are working to achieve a “balancing act of paying homage to history and tradition while at the same time looking forward boldly into the future.”