Rocker Alice Cooper Goes Classical to Reinvent Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” for the 21st Century
Friday, April 29, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Peter and the Wolf, with story and score by Sergei Prokofiev, has introduced countless children to classical music. Since it premiered in 1936, there have also been countless interpretations and reinterpretations of the piece. It has been narrated by everyone from Prokofiev’s immediate family members, to great actors like Ben Kingskley and Patrick Stewart, to politicians like Eleanor Roosevelt and Bill Clinton, to musicians ranging from David Bowie to Jacqueline du Pré. Rocker Alice Cooper joined the illustrious list of narrators with the creation of a new, American version of this classic work: Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood.
Cooper joined the multimedia production company Giants Are Small to create both a recording and a downloadable app for iPhone and iPad Deluxe. The app offers an “interactive musical adventure,” according to the website, in which “kids travel through a sculpted, painted, animated wonderland as they immerse themselves in great classical music, and try to save Hollywood from a wolf on the loose.”
The Giants first began developing their 21st century take on Prokofiev’s classic with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2008, presenting a first incarnation of the project to over 15,000 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. See how their interactive version came together in the video below:
Cooper said in a recent interview that he’s a lifelong fan of Peter and the Wolf and classical music. “When I was a child classical music was always around. My dad was a big band guy, he played saxophone, so we had a lot of big band around. Then in the 50s doo-wop came around and in the 60s the Beatles came around. But classical music was always there, it was always a mainstay.”
Classical music has been such a mainstay in Cooper’s career that he even incorporated Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain into his rock act. “It had that big gothic sound so we used to play the tape of it right before we would go on at the beginning of the Alice Cooper show,” he said. “I always loved the power of that. It was always very stirring to me.”
There are many connections between classical and rock, according to Cooper. “If you listen to prog rock – groups like King Crimson or Emerson, Lake & Palmer, or any of these really great prog rock groups – you can hear how much classical music is a part of the musician’s upbringing. Procol Harum was almost pure classical rock. You can hear they were highly trained and listened to everything.” Given his life-long interest in diverse kinds of music, Cooper was thrilled to get a call from Giants Are Small to collaborate on a new Peter and the Wolf.
Cooper was also attracted to the project because he enjoys anything theatrical, and he was eager to try his hand at narrating the story and to have the “freedom to create voices” to match the characters. “I created a voice for Alice Cooper the character,” he said. “I write songs for him and create shows around him, and that’s not really me at all.” So for Cooper, creating voices for Peter and the Wolf came as second nature.
“Once you decide on a character, you figure out the voice,” he explained. “For example with the cat, once you decide he’s going to be sleazy, everything becomes drawn out. He’s very seductive. You know how cats hunt. They’re not big and bold, they’re sneaky. That’s how I wanted the cat to be.”
Because the story has been updated to take place in present-day Hollywood, Cooper was particularly glad to give the grandfather a distinctly American sound. “I went immediately for Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong,” he chuckled. “I just thought he would be the perfect guy for that. They’re old friends of mine, so I don’t think he minded that I borrowed his voice for that. I wanted him to be all like, ‘Hey man, that’s coooooool,’ because that’s what an old hippie in Los Angeles would sound like.”
By updating the story, Cooper and the creative team hope that Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood can entertain and educate young people. “If I were a young kid today, I would look at the wolf as being the bully,” Cooper said. “The kid is the one character in the story who is not afraid of the wolf. He chases the wolf and confronts the wolf. So I like thinking of the kid as confronting a bully.”
“We’re all going to relate to Peter a different way,” he said. “I think everyone will identify with him, but they’ll have to ask how they would handle the situation. Maybe kids in this generation can gain some courage from the story if they view the wolf as a bully, and maybe they’ll learn to stand up to bullies instead of being afraid of them.”
Learn more about Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood here.
Thursday, April 28, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Ultraman, the superhero from the television series of the same name, recently revealed a new superpower: conducting. Ultraman was created in the 1960s for a series of 39 episodes produced by the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). The hero fights off monsters and space aliens who terrorize innocent civilians, including, apparently concert goers.
In the video below, Ultraman’s performance of his own “Song of Ultraman,” the show’s theme, is interrupted by a crazy looking, clawed creature. But never fear! When Ultraman is around, the show must and will go on.
Hear the original “Song of Ultraman” below in an English-language version of the show’s first episode.
What superheroes do you want to see behind the podium? Tell us in the comments.
Tuesday, April 26, 2016 by Michael San Gabino
Alright, so maybe you’ve heard the pipa before. Perhaps, though, you don’t know it by name. The distinctive sound of this plucked Chinese instrument has made its way into soundtracks for films such as Kung Fu Panda 3. Grammy-nominated pipa player Wu Man counts the animated film as one of many projects that have helped her introduce ancient sounds to modern audiences.
In anticipation of her performance at the National Chinese Language Conference in Chicago, Wu Man discussed the pipa’s 2,000-year history and her diverse collaborations.
“The pipa looks like a pear-shaped lute. It’s seen as a Chinese instrument, but it originally came from Central Asia,” Wu Man explained. “Over the years, the Chinese developed the way the pipa is played now: four strings plucked with the instrument held straight up and down. It is closely related to the oud in the Middle East or even the banjo in America.”
Instruments that are associated with a certain region are often labelled “folk” instruments. Wu Man explained that in China, “it was really known as a ‘classical’ instrument. That means it was not meant for large, public performances. It was meant to be an intellectual instrument played in a very small setting, like in the palace in front of the emperor.”
“But in the 19th century, the instrument became more popular.” She continued, “It was used in local concerts, and it was seen more as an instrument to master. Before, the solo repertoire was based in an oral tradition. A book came from this time that was a collection of these traditional pieces. Now, you can find the pipa in solos, small ensembles, orchestras—anywhere!”
Wu Man first played the pipa when she was 9 years old. “I would say my parents pushed me to learn it,” she laughed. “When I was about 13, I went to study at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. I stayed there for middle school, high school, college, and graduate school. After I graduated in 1990, I came to the U.S.”
Like many young musicians fresh out of school, Wu Man’s first stop was New York. “I just couldn’t believe all the things happening there. I heard so many different types of music. That gave me an open mind to say, ‘this is what I’m going to do for this instrument,’ since no one really knew the pipa here during that time. So I started to play with a jazz band, in clubs, just trying to introduce the instrument.”
Wu Man considers these diverse musical experiences as the catalysts for her career. “Sometimes, you never know who’s in the audience,” she said. “I had people come backstage saying, ‘Wow, your sound and your instrument are great. Can I write for you? Can you play with us?’ I always said, ‘Yes.’”
Since, Wu Man has collaborated with some of the most influential composers and musicians, including Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, and the Kronos Quartet. According to Wu Man, cross-genre collaborations are crucial for the pipa’s survival.
“We have to open doors to keep this instrument alive,” she stated. “You want to keep the traditional form but you can also push the envelope to see how we can do other things for the next generation. I think this instrument is such a treasure for all cultures.” She chuckled, “It’s just a cool instrument, and I want people to know that!”
Exposing the pipa to audiences around the world has surprised Wu Man in a few ways. “First, I think 98% of the audiences in my concerts have never heard the pipa. Surprisingly, people will come up to me after and say, ‘Oh that sounds like a banjo! That sounds like a harp! That sounds like a guitar!’ The pipa really is a combination of all plucked instruments, and I’m glad people always find something familiar.”
“The other surprise is that the pipa can play not only the traditional Chinese repertoire, but it fits into so many genres,” Wu Man said. “I’ve worked with so many musicians, from Mexican guitarists to banjo players. Music is music – the instrument is just the way you can express.”
Listen and watch Wu Man perform Zhao Jiping’s Pipa Concerto No. 2 with the China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra in the video below.
Learn more about Wu Man by visiting here website.
Tuesday, April 26, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Singer Sophie Rennert has the internet in stitches with her Golden Rules for Singing Opera that she posted on her blog April 23, 2016. There’s no shortage of digs about divas out there. But Rennert’s Golden Rules pack a particular punch since she herself is a singer. What rules would you add to her list? Tell us in the comments.
- Everyone should pretend to have contact with the conductor. If you are a soprano, you do not have to follow this rule.
- If the conductor suggests change sin tempo, dynamic, or expression, nod very seriously, mark something in your score, and then go back to singing it like you always did.
- If you sing a minor part, suggest cutting a lot (especially when it’s Rossini). However, if you sing a major part, insist to insert some extra cadenzas.
- If you sing a wrong note, give a nasty look to one of your partners.
- The right note at the wrong time is a wrong note (and vice-versa). Make this especially clear to the soprano. If you are a soprano, turn to rule No. 4.
- Keep your ears open for your colleagues’ technical mistakes and give them notes afterwards. They will appreciate this a lot.
- After the rehearsal, start a lengthy discussion about your own high notes. Your colleagues will be thrilled to hear about your new technical approach.
- If the director tells you to act more, nod excitedly then reduce your action. If he complains, tell him that you will do it all in the performance.
- Warm up carefully so that you are ready to sing louder than everyone else.
- Markings for dynamics should not be observed. They are only for decoration. The orchestra will be playing too loud for you to sing an actual pianissimo anyway.
- If you are insecure with your text, pretend that you had troubles turning pages.
- If a passage is very difficult for you, stop everybody and say, “I think you are speeding up here.”
- If a passage is very easy for you, speed up the tempo a little bit to make it even more difficult for your partners. When confronted, blame the conductor.
- If you are completely lost, stop, turn to your neighbor and say, “Could you sing this phrase right for ONCE?”
- A true interpretation is realized when the conductor cannot follow you anymore.
- A flat high note sung timidly is a wrong note. A flat high note sung with authority is expression.
- When everyone else has finished singing, you should not sing any notes you have left (except when you are a soprano, make sure to hold the last note at least twice as long as others.”
- If your voice fails in an exposed passage, distract everyone by explaining your reflux and digestive problems in detail. Everyone will be very interested.
- If you are singing a very demanding part, make sure to tell everyone how very demanding it is. That way you will look very professional. If you are soprano, additionally tell everyone that their parts are even more demanding to make them nervous. Your performance will shine even more when others screw up.
- If you are a tenor, ignore all rules and just do whatever you want. You’re a tenor. They need you.
Friday, April 22, 2016 by WFMT
Shakespeare penned some of the most beautiful verses in the English language. And while Shakespeare’s work is wonderful to read, it’s even better when it’s performed.
So we asked a group of eight actors to read us some of their favorite verses as we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death as a part of the citywide celebration, Shakespeare 400 Chicago. All appear in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Tug of War, which condenses six of the Bard’s plays into two epic dramas.
Enjoy the readings and tell us your favorite lines of Shakespeare in the comments below.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind;
And that which governs me to go about
Doth part his function, and is partly blind,
Seems seeing, but effectually is out;
For it no form delivers to the heart
Of bird of flower, or shape, which it doth latch:
Of his quick objects hath the mind no part,
Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch;
For if it see the rud’st or gentlest sight,
The most sweet favour or deformed’st creature,
The mountain or the sea, the day or night,
The crow, or dove, it shapes them to your feature:
Incapable of more, replete with you,
My most true mind thus maketh mine untrue.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Thursday, April 21, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Sometimes, composers save their best work for last. Bach created his contrapuntal masterpiece, The Art of Fugue, at the end of his life. Beethoven’s final symphony changed the way composers approached the genre altogether.
Is Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, his best?
On a break from rehearsing Falstaff with maestro Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, five singers responded. Here is what mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, soprano Eleonora Buratto, soprano Rosa Feola, tenor Saimir Pirgu, and baritone Luca Salsi had to say about Verdi’s last opera.
“Falstaff is very different from the operas Verdi wrote before it,” Barcellona said.
But how? For starters, there’s no overture.
There are also no “closed” numbers. Verdi composed the opera without traditional divisions between recitative, aria, and ensembles, creating a “through composed” score that is continuous from start to finish.
“If people come to hear Falstaff because they want to hear gorgeous arias, they won’t like it,” Barcellona said.
“When I brought my parents to see me in Falstaff in Vienna for the first time, they didn’t like it,” Pirgu said. “They liked other Verdi operas more.”
“Well Falstaff is a true ensemble piece,” Barcellona said.
“It took me a long time to understand Falstaff,” Feola said. “As a singer, you of course have to know your part. But that’s not enough in this opera. You need to know the whole opera – every part.”
“Yes, it’s very important to know every part,” Buratto agreed, “we have to be a team from the very beginning.”
Pirgu emphasized that in this score, “every detail is important, every single note and rest can affect the others. There can be some real problems.”
But if there’s one problem this group of singers does not have, it’s working as a team.
“We all have worked many times with maestro Muti, so we know his process, and many of us have also worked together. We have so much fun together – sometimes too much,” Pirgu said with a laugh.
Laughs abound on stage too.
In fact, Falstaff is one of only two comedies Verdi composed in his entire career – another thing that makes the opera unique. (The other is his second opera, Un giorno di regno, which was not commercially successful when it premiered.)
Some of the laughs come from Verdi’s source material: Shakespeare’s Falstaff himself, known for his big belly, big appetite, and even bigger ego. The character appears in three plays: The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2.
Verdi had long been fascinated by Shakespeare, and composed Macbeth and Otello before starting Falstaff. Verdi enlisted Boito, with whom he created Otello, to craft an operatic portrait of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters.
“The story is taken from Shakespeare, but it has an Italian soul,” Feola said. She described how maestro Muti often corrected the singers in rehearsals to make sure that their performance, musically and dramatically, is properly Italian.
Part of the “Italian-ness” of the work is the language of Boito’s libretto.
“If you don’t really know Italian very well, it can be difficult to understand,” said Pirgu, who is himself Albanian but is a naturalized Italian citizen.
“It’s not current Italian,” Salsi interjected. “So there are a lot of very strange words that you have to find in the dictionary.”
Yet, the libretto is far from dry and dusty. “There are a lot of double meanings in the language,” Salsi said chuckling.
“There’s one line that we have been laughing a lot about but which is very difficult to translate,” Buratto said. “Let’s just say it’s about putting a big thing inside a small space,” she said with a colorful gesticulation.
The singers enjoyed trying to read Shakespearean insults, which are also difficult to translate, from the plays that inspired Falstaff. Listen below:
But Falstaff isn’t all fun and games – at least for the musicians.
Salsi admitted, “Falstaff is very difficult musically.”
“It’s a musicians’ opera,” Feola said with a nod.
One of the most famously complex sections of the entire opera is its conclusion. Falstaff, who fancies himself a trickster, has himself been tricked. Everything winds up happily ever after, and the entire ensemble sings a grand fugue on text that translates to “the whole word is a joke.”
“The whole opera is difficult to sing,” Pirgu said. “You especially can’t disturb the tempo and the rhythm in the big fugue at the end. The scene is really a lesson in how music should be. It seems very simple but it becomes very difficult when you have so many voices together.” Hear Muti conduct the final chorus in Falstaff below.
The final fugue, which is as complex musically as it is in its philosophical musings, might be one of the reasons Falstaff is often viewed today as being more “intellectual,” despite being a comedy.
Regardless of whether or not Falstaff is headier than, say, Rigoletto, the composer did, perhaps, put more thought into composing his last work than the thirty-six that came before it.
“Verdi wrote this opera over many years,” Pirgu explained, “with many periods of starting and stopping so he could consider what he could bring that was new to the artform of opera. And with Falstaff, what he came up with is one of the most difficult and most beautiful operas.”
“Falstaff definitely influenced other composers after Verdi,” Salsi said. “You can anticipate the works of Puccini and other verismo operas when you hear Falstaff.”
Though the CSO’s production of Falstaff is in concert, Pirgu said,“You don’t need to ‘see’ it. We have an amazing orchestra, the best conductor, an amazing group of singers, and it just works. There are some operas that are hard to see in concert, but I think this works better than others.”
Buratto said that, “When I sing this opera in concert, in my mind I always see scenes that I have done before in previous productions. I need to. Sometimes I’m even tempted to do some of the movement I’ve done in the past. But I have to stop myself and say, ‘No, it’s a concert!’”
In lieu of sets and costumes, Feola said, “there are a lot of special effects we need to create with our voices that the maestro has asked. In some ways, it’s more challenging.”
“When you work with Muti,” Salsi interrupted, “he teaches you the music and the role so deeply that you don’t need staging. Everything is there.”
“The most beautiful thing about working with maestro Muti is that he always creates something new,” Barcellona said. “Even if you’re doing an opera many times over a week or two weeks, every time it is different.
“He knows how to feel the audience, how to respond to subtle changes. I’ve experienced this with him many times. I can’t explain it,” she said with a glow. “But something magic happens with maestro Muti.”
Is Falstaff Verdi’s best opera? It’s certainly one of his most unique and influential works, and it could be one of your new favorites, too.
To learn more about the performances of Falstaff that Riccardo Muti leads with these singers, visit the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s website.
Tuesday, April 19, 2016 by Stephen Raskauskas
Monday, June 29, 2015 by Stephen Raskauskas
Younger generations of Americans take it for granted that the United States has been legally desegregated. But, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, segregation was the norm, including in concert halls across America.
Contralto Marian Anderson (1897 – 1993) broke many boundaries for people of color throughout her career. She did so most famously when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to let her sing for an integrated audience in DAR’s Constitution Hall, in Washington D.C.
As a reaction to the poor treatment Anderson received, thousands of DAR members resigned, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote in protest:
In lieu of the originally scheduled concert at Constitution Hall, Anderson performed an open-air concert, fittingly, in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. The concert, arranged by President Roosevelt, Walter White (NAACP executive secretary), and Sol Hurok (Anderson’s manager), was attended by over 75,000 people and heard by millions in a radio broadcast.
The Lincoln Memorial concert was a triumphant moment for Anderson. Unfortunately, however, the DAR is not the only organization that discriminated against her because of the color of her skin.
Anderson, a Philadelphia native, was turned away from the Philadelphia Music Academy because she was black. In spite of obstacles obtaining a musical education, she studied music privately, and gained attention after winning singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic.
She made her European debut at Wigmore Hall, London in 1930, and spend the remainder of the 1930s touring throughout Europe, where she was met with acceptance and praise. Curiously, she did not experience the same prejudice in Europe as she did in America.
Jean Sibelius, after Anderson’s 1933 visit to his home in Helsinki, said, “My ceiling is much too low for your voice.” Subsequently, Sibelius and Anderson became good friends and frequent collaborators. Arturo Toscanini, the Italian conductor, commented during her 1935 Salzburg tour: “A voice like hers is heard once in a hundred years.”
Anderson returned to the U.S. in the 1930s where she received high praise, though she still encountered prejudice as a black musician. When Anderson was turned away from hotels in New York and New Jersey, physicist Albert Einstein opened his home to her.
Violinist Isaac Stern once commented, in reference to discrimination Anderson suffered:
Anderson’s historic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a concert heard round the world. She famously performed “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” with lyrics by Samuel Francis Smith set to the tune of “God Save the Queen.” The words “sweet land of liberty” were pregnant with meaning when Anderson sang them in 1939 since, of course, she and other Americans of color did not share the same liberties as white Americans.
In the years following and prior to this performance, Anderson was a trail blazer, both as a musician, and as a black woman. In 1928, she was the first black woman to perform at Carnegie Hall. In 1955, she became the first black singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera as a regular company member.
Today we honor her contributions in many ways, including through the annually given Marian Anderson Award, which celebrates critically acclaimed artists – individuals who have used their talents for personal artistic expression and whose body of work has contributed to our society in a singular manner.
We can also honor Anderson by recognizing that segregation still exists within our society, though the United States has been legally desegregated. By doing so, we can work to make our nation a true “sweet land of liberty.”
Monday, April 25, 2016 by Associated Press
NEW YORK — Francesco Anile got to make his Metropolitan Opera debut in a T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. With 5 minutes notice.
The 54-year-old Italian tenor was in the green room during the last act of Saturday’s performance of Verdi’s “Otello,” which was being broadcast on radio throughout the world, when he was told by a stage director that Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko was sick and unable to sing the title role in the fourth act.There was no time to get in costume for Otello’s ent
rance ahead of the final scene, so Anile put on a black cape and stood on the edge of stage right above the orchestra pit while Antonenko acted the role and mouthed the words.
“No time to change. No time for anything,” Anile said.
Otello strangles his wife, Desdemona, during the 13-minute scene and sings the aria “Niun mi tema (Let no one fear me)” before stabbing himself to death.
Antonenko had difficulty with high notes and projecting with volume throughout the performance, and the problem got worse during the third act.
Anile, from the Reggio Calabria area of Italy, had walked through the staging, which premiered last September, and rehearsed with conductor Adam Fisher but had never sung a Met performance.
“When I started to sing, maestro was surprised,” Anile said.
Then he could see the conductor nod that he understood what was going on.
An announcement was made to the audience after the final curtain that this had been Anile’s debut, and he joined soprano Hibla Gerzmava, baritone Zeljko Lucic and the rest of the cast for the curtain calls.
“For me, it was the biggest surprise,” he said.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. By Ronald Blum | AP April 23, 2016
Monday, April 18, 2016 by WFMT
Chicago Native Henry Threadgill was named the 2016 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his composition “In for a Penny, in for a Pound.” The recording was released in May 2015. The Prize’s administration noted that Threadgill’s piece was chosen because it is “a highly original work in which notated music and improvisation mesh in a sonic tapestry that seems the very expression of modern American life (Pi Recordings).” For more information about other nominees and winners, visit the Pulitzer Prize’s website.