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12 Polish Composers You Should Know (Who Aren’t Chopin)

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Everyone loves the music of Fryderyk Chopin, Poland’s most well-known composer. But, how many other Polish composers do you know?

Learn more about Poland’s best composers from one of Poland’s best composers: Marta Ptaszyńska. Born in Warsaw and based in Chicago, Ptaszyńska has received many prestigious awards and honors for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her output includes a diverse range of repertoire from music for solo instruments to several operas. Her opera Mister Marimba, commissioned for and performed by the Warsaw National Opera, has been performed 164 times!

A percussionist herself, Ptaszyńska’s piece Siderals for two percussion quintets and light projection requires 117 instruments to perform! She plays over 200 distinct percussion instruments, and is fascinated by the “many thousands of timbres colors of percussion instruments that cannot be achieved by electronic means or other instruments.”

“There is no Polish culture without music. Polish culture is music,” Ptaszyńska passionately proclaimed. She shared 12 Polish composers we all should know, drawing upon composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.


Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941)

Paderewski was afantastic pianist first all, and a fantastic diplomat and statesmen,” Ptaszyńska said. He worked to re-establish Poland’s independence and signed the Treaty of Versailles, restoring Greater Poland and Pomerania to Poland. Even if you think you don’t know Paderewski’s music, you’re likely familiar with some of his work.  He was the editor of the works of Chopin published in 1949, a monumental contribution to musicians everywhere. Of all of his music, many know the Minuet in G “that everybody has to play in middle school and elementary school,” Ptaszyńska said. But, she recommends listening to his only opera, Manru, and his Violin Sonata, Op. 13, which she describes as “absolutely brilliant.”

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Grażyna Bacewicz (1909- 1969)

Grażyna Bacewicz  was an “outstanding violinist and pianist,” Ptaszyńska said, who was “very popular and well-known especially after World War II, when her music was suddenly noticed by people all over Europe.” Growing up in the pre-war Poland, “her techniques were… not so avant-garde. Her middle period was sort of neo-classical. But after the War, she used new sonorities and techniques. She tried to do all the new things in her late works.” Of all Bacewicz’s works, Ptaszyńska recommends giving her Caprices a listen.

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Witold Lutosławski ( 1913-1994)

Ptaszyńska describes Lutosławski as the “greatest Polish composer after World War II, though he composed during the War also.” She explained her special affection for Lutosławski: “His music is the closest to me because I studied with him and he was a mentor.” She enjoys his diverse output, which includes well known works like his Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1941). But she thinks his best works are from after the 1950s, when he explored more avant-garde techniques. He never wrote an opera, though he composed a lot of vocal music. Since, like Ptaszyńska, he composed music for young musicians, try listening to one of his charming children’s songs.

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Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991)

Panufnik was a friend of Lutosławski. the two spent time together during the World War II during the second occupation and formed a duo that played in cafes in Warsaw. Panufnik stayed in Poland for a while after the War, became the director of the Kraków Philharmonic, and restored the Warsaw Philharmonic. In 1956, he escaped Poland, and eventually settled in England, spending most of his life in London. “In England he didn’t have an easy life, but he continued to compose,” Ptaszyńska said. Though she never had the opportunity to meet the composer himself, she visited his widow in London many times after he passed away. Try listening to his Piano Concerto (1961).

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Wojciech Kilar (1932 – 2013)

Wojciech Kilar, Ptaszyńska’s friend and colleague, was “well-known as a composer of great sacred music. But he’s also known for his film music, because he composed music for the famous directors like Roman Polanski,” she said. Some of his most well-known film scores include music for Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola). He received a César Award for Best Film Music written for his piece Moving to the Ghetto Oct. 31, 1940 which he composed for the movie The Pianist.

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Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)

Górecki was a “very Polish composer because he took all of his inspiration from Polish dances,” Ptaszyńska explained. Many know the composer’s Symphony No. 3, which premiered in 1977 with Stefania Woytowicz as the soprano soloist. However, it was not until Dawn Upshaw recorded the piece in 1992 with the London Sinfonietta that the piece gained wide-spread popularity. Ptaszyńska recommends his Symphony No. 2, “Copernicus,” which is inspired by the famous Polish astronomer and mathematician who proved that the Earth revolves around the sun.

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Krzysztof Penderecki (1933 –    )

Ptaszyńska calls Penderecki “the most diverse composer from the whole Polish group. There’s such a great variety it’s hard to believe.” She explained that he tends to change his style every couple of years, and recently has been collaborating more and more with pop and jazz musicians. In turn, “jazz musicians have also been adapting his music to their own style, and he supports that very much,” she said. There’s so much great music by Penderecki. There’s his large-scale St. Luke Passion won him the Prix Italia. Then, of course there’s his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Not to mention, his music has been used famously in films.  His Polymorphia was made famous by the film adaptation of The Shining.

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Krzysztof Knittel (1947 –     )

Ptaszyńska shares a special connect with Krzysztof Knittel: they were both born on the exact same day! He studied composition and sound engineering at the Frederic Chopin Academy of Music. So, it’s no surprise that his music involves electronics and multimedia. “Every piece he composes is composed for an instrument, or group of instruments, is also for electronics,” Ptaszyńska said. “He does not present music for pure instrumental ensemble.” Try listening to the electronic soundscape of his Surface En Rotation.

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Tadeusz Wielecki (1954 –     )

Ptaszyńska is excited to welcome composer and double bass player Tadeusz Wielecki to Chicago in February of 2016, when he will perform with Contempo. Ptaszyńska describes him as an “avant-garde, post-modern composer, who knows all the composers,” because he directs the Festival of Contemporary Music Warsaw Autumn. Enjoy some of his experimental sounds in Łagodne Kołysanie, which has the musicians playing everything from the violin empty bottles.

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Jarek Kapuscinski (1964 –      )

Kapuscinski writes “very great music and is a very great pianist,” Ptaszyńska said. Based at Stanford University where he is a professor and Director of Intermedia Performance Lab, Kapuscinski has a special interest in electronic music and multimedia. But he also has an interest in music of the far east, Ptaszyńska explained. Though she recommended many of his interesting pieces, check out his Mondrian Variations, which finally answers the question, “What would a Mondrian sound like?”


Pawel Mykietyn (1971 –     )

Ptaszyńska mentioned that the generation of Polish composers born in the 1970s has been particularly influential, and wanted to highlight the work of Pawel Mykietyn in particular. She describes him as a “full-blooded post-modernist,” who likes to challenge stylistic conventions. He doesn’t like to repeat himself. Every piece brings something new and unexpected.” His St. Mark Passion, she explained, was so new and unexpected that it sparked a big debate between Penderecki and Mykietyn. She said that he likes to explore the “boundaries between dreams and waking consciousness,” and “bring the audience’s emotions to the boiling point” when they hear his music.

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Agata Zubel (1978 –      )

Joining Tadeusz Wielecki in Chicago this February is composer and musician Agata Zubel. Ptaszyńska described her as a singer and percussionist whose work is “very theatrical and has very strong dramaturgical roots.” An important figure of the avant-garde, Zubel enjoys incorporating extended techniques in her music. Her musicianship is so impressive, Ptaszyńska said, that some colleagues reported that they have “never had a singer who was so accurate and could sing with such precision as Agata.”

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WFMT is celebrating the music of Chopin and other Polish composers all month long as we broadcast the International Chopin Piano Competition. WFMT’s live broadcast of the Chopin Competition winner’s concert from Warsaw begins at noon CST Wednesday. Live daily 9 am reports continue through Tuesday. (wfmt.com/chopin)

QUIZ: Can you tell the difference between Chinese foods and instruments?

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QUIZ: Match the Film to the Score

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Classical Music’s Most Memorable Moments on Sesame Street

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These Photoshopped Pictures of Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde Will Make You Literally LOL

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0969 – Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Atom Egoyan, set and costume designer Michael Levine, and lighting designer David Finn. Photo: Michael Cooper Michael Cooper Photographic Office- 416-466-4474 Mobile- 416-938-7558 66 Coleridge Ave. Toronto, ON M4C 4H5

Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Atom Egoyan, set and costume designer Michael Levine, and lighting designer David Finn. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Christine Goerke has set the world on fire with what the Wall Street Journal described as her “big, blazing soprano.” Recently she’s set the internet ablaze not with her voice, but with her sense of humor.

When Goerke posted a production photo from the Canadian Opera Company (COC) Siegfried, in which she plays the role of the Norse Valkyrie Brünnhilde, on her personal Facebook page, her friend, soprano Deirdre Michael, photoshopped it into a hilarious series that pays tribute to the diva’s down-to-earth sense of humor.

Siegfried is the third opera in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, known as the Ring Cycle. In the second opera, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Brünnhilde defies her father, Wotan. Her punishment? Wotan makes his favorite daughter mortal, imprisons her on a rock surrounded by a ring of fire, and places her in an enchanted sleep.

When we meet Brünnhilde in Siegfried, she is woken from her magic sleep with a kiss from the title character. Photographer Michael Cooper captured the instant “just after the kiss, and the moment of awakening. As he kisses me, I raise up to meet him with my eyes closed and start to put my arm around to touch his head, but he moves out of the way- and my arm keeps going as I stretch back down to the floor. The photograph was taken mid move,” Goerke said in an interview that took place via Facebook chat (naturally!).

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016. Conductor Johannes Debus, Director François Girard, Set and Costume Designer Michael Levine, Lighting Designer David Finn and Choreographer Donna Feore. Photo: Michael Cooper)

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016. Conductor Johannes Debus, Director François Girard, Set and Costume Designer Michael Levine, Lighting Designer David Finn and Choreographer Donna Feore. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Goerke uploaded Cooper’s photo of this magic moment onto her personal Facebook page on Sunday, January 24, 2015. Within an hour, “Deirdre said something along the lines of, ‘Don’t make me Photoshop a piece of Pizza into your hand.’ I dared her to do it,” Goerke said. “Alan Held [Wanderer in the COC Siegfried] urged her on, and somehow we ended up with the best collection of hysterical opera photo shops *evuh*.” See the full series below.

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 “Social media and contact with my friends and family via social media is one of the most important tools in my arsenal to keep from being lonely and sad on the road,” Goerke said. “It helps me feel like I’m a bit closer and more in touch with the ones I love, and the ones who make me smile on a daily basis.”

“I know it’s a cliché,” Goerke continued, “but if we can’t laugh at ourselves, we are just done for. Life is funny! We make mistakes, things happen to us… They’re *funny*. That’s something to enjoy and a gift!

“I’m very lucky that Christine has such an amazing sense of humor and an appreciation for the absurd,” Michael said. Soon, others joined in on the fun Michael started, contributing their own images to her growing collection.

When asked for permission to share images Michael created, Goerke responded sardonically, “I don’t know about this. Opera and classical vocal music is VERY serious business… *cough*.”

The two sopranos met through music. Michael is a member of Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the official chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who encountered Goerke “first on a practice recording they sent for Britten’s War Requiem,” she said.

“I was electrified by the humanity of her singing,” Michael said. “Technically perfect, but she crawled through my ear buds and made me feel the emotion of each piece. I met her out at Tanglewood when she sang Mahler 8 with us. She is just as warm, witty and lovely in person. She has a gift for connecting and friendship.”

And, as friendships in the 21st century go, theirs is obviously not without its fair share of Facebook shenanigans as the Siegfried series, below, shows.


  1. When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie, but you’re more in the mood for pizza than amore….
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  2. When you need a side dish to go with that pizza
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  3. When your Seamless finally arrives after a long day of choosing who will be slain in battle
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  4. When you’re feeling Revolutionary
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    Edited by Jacob Patrick

  5. When you’ve had the time of your life
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    Edited by Ofelia Williams

  6. When you feel like you’re flying
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    Edited by Michael Rossi

  7. When you just need to stop and take a selfie
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  8. When the force is with you
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  9. When you need a drink (or two hundred)
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  10. When you’re feeling like a sex goddess
    10_birth_of_venus

    Edited by Jimmy Odom

  11. When you’re about to sink that jump shot
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  12. When you’re about to save the day
    12_jurrasic
  13. When you need to monkey around
    13_barrel_of_goerkes

    Edited by Jacob Patrick

  14. When you’re avenging the death of your parents
    14_harry_potter
  15. When you listen to Christine Goerke and you feel like you’re in heaven
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Dance Day on WFMT

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Dame Margot Fonteyn

Friday, January 29, 2016 WFMT presents an all-day celebration of music and the cross-cultural language of dance.  We’ll hear from dancers, choreographers, musicians, and composers who have created or participated in dance performances, and the music that inspired their craft. Here are some of the artists and music you’ll be hearing today.


Dame Margot Fonteyn’s blend of refinement and passion redefined 20th-century ballet style and made her an international idol as the prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet in Britain. This clip from WFMT’s archives was originally heard in a 1979 Studs Terkel Program.

At an age when most dancers consider retirement, Dame Margot Fonteyn became the dance partner of Rudolph Nureyev who, at age 22, had just defected to the West. Their collaboration was the stuff legends are made of and Nureyev once said, “At the end of Swan Lake, when she left the stage in her great white tutu, I would have followed her to the end of the world.” Hear more from the Dame of Dance below.

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The relationship between architecture and dance—the art of creating spaces and the art of navigating spaces—is rich.  The two art forms are different in so many ways. When the Chicago Architecture Biennial [http://chicagoarchitecturebiennial.org/] commissioned a collaboration between architect Steven Holl and choreographer Jessica Lang, the result was Tesseracts of Time, a piece the Jessica Lang Dance Company debuted at Chicago’s Harris Theater last fall. Hear more from Lang below.

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Founded in 1972, The Chicago-based Muntu Dance Theatre performs authentic and progressive interpretations of contemporary and ancient African and African-American dance, music, and folklore. The ensemble found it’s name in the Bantu language where “muntu” means “the essence of humanity.

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Tap dancer Lane Alexander is the founder and director of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project and the American Rhythm Center. He performed Morton Gould’s Concerto for Tap dancer and Orchestra with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Paul Freeman.  “Tap Dancers are musicians,” he says. Hear more from Alexander below.

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When Hema Rajagopalan began teaching Bharatanatyam – South Indian classical dance – to Indian-American girls in her living room in the mid-1970s, no one would have imagined that three decades later this homespun operation would have grown into a full fledged school and a dance company. Today, Natya Dance Theatre is known internationally for integrity to tradition and choreographic innovation.

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New Opera Exposes Horrors of My Lai Massacre

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Images of the My Lai massacre, which saw the slaughter of over 500 innocent civilians in Vietnam on March 16, 1968, on the front page of Cleveland’s “The Plain Dealer”

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Victims in the My Lai Massacare, pictured above, included children and women

“The story of Hugh Thompson in My Lai and the opposition of the Vietnam War is what led me from high school into adulthood,” said Jonathan Berger, composer and professor at Stanford University.   Hugh Thompson was a Warrant Officer in the United States Army who attempted to stop American soldiers from murdering over 500 innocent civilians in Vietnam on March 16, 1968. Thompson was not recognized for his efforts until 30 years later, when the Army awarded him the Soldier’s Medal.

“There was an enormous amount of talk in my house about what really constitutes patriotism, what is a right war and a wrong war,” Berger continued.  “This was the background noise in my life.”

Over forty years later, Berger’s “background noise” comes to the foreground in his new work My Lai. This operatic monodrama follows Hugh Thompson’s story in various snapshots, from the horrific day in My Lai to reflective moments throughout his life (Thompson passed away from cancer in 2006). The piece was created for the Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert, and Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, and received its concert premiere at Stanford in October 2015.  The staged production will premiere in Chicago at the Harris Theater on Friday, January 29.

Before My Lai, Berger composed another piece dedicated to Thompson. “Thompson found out about my piano concerto that was inspired by him, and he called me after he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal,” Berger said.  “We had a brief conversation, which was very moving.  It was the only time I had personal contact with him.  His story has an artistic, dramatic curve, and I knew I’d come back to it.  But there’s the issue of just telling the story.”

In order to explore the gravity of the content in a larger scale work, Berger described how the conception of My Lai is rooted in collaboration and trust.  First, he discussed his idea with violinist David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet. “This is a story of heroism and patriotism and ethics and morality that just needs to be told today even more than ever.  So that conversation I had with David Harrington was an incredibly memorable one.  I think we both almost cathartically said how important that period was in our lives.”

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

Kronos Quartetin San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013. Founder and violinist David Harrington pictured far right. (Photo: Jay Blakesberg)

Harrington also grew up during the Vietnam War.  He founded Kronos after hearing George Crumb’s Black Angels on the radio in August 1973.  “Black Angels came out of a very disorienting, disturbing moment in our history,” Harrington explained. “Many people were searching for a way to express themselves during this time.  For me, there it was.”

“All these years later, there’s Jonathan talking about this idea that’s been inside of him for 40 years,” Harrington continued, “and it just seemed to me to be a perfect segue way for us. One thing I’ve tried to do in my work with composers is that I’ve always trusted what I’m hearing from them.  If someone mentions to me that they’ve had this idea burning in them for 40 years – it has to get out – then I trust that.  That was what I was hearing from Jonathan.”

Berger teamed up with tenor Rinde Eckert, who portrays Thompson, and director Mark DeChiazza (Eckert and DeChiazza had collaborated on a previous opera project with Berger).  Author Harriet Scott Chessman wrote the libretto for My Lai.

Harrington invited Vietnamese instrumental virtuoso Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ to collaborate.  “At first, I was afraid because it was a new domain to me, but moreover, I have this personal trepidation about culture appropriation, taking music of a culture that is not mine,” Berger said. “That momentary trepidation died immediately when I first met Vân-Ánh. We talked about making sure the music was respectful of the Vietnamese culture, and we worked very hard to shape the music in that way.”

Vân-Ánh plays a number of traditional Vietnamese instruments throughout My Lai.  The prelude, “My Lai Lullaby,” features the solo đàn bầu, a one-stringed zither.  “If you can imagine a theramin that’s actually living and breathing, that’s kind of what it’s like,” Harrington commented.

Berger added, “She also plays the đàn tranh, a bamboo xylophone.  The bamboo spikes are identical to those that the Viet Cong used for booby traps.”  Gongs made of American artillery shells from the war will also be used.  While Berger noted My Lai is not the first work to use instruments made out of this weaponry, he expressed how it still “became this poetic version of beating weapons of war into instruments of music.”

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Vietnamese instrumental virtuoso Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ

The mixture of the Vietnamese and Western instruments creates “textured, feverish sounds” according to Harrington.  “There will be some very raw sounds coming from Kronos – no question!  But there are also some beautiful and sensitive sounds.  There are elements and references to distortion in Black Angels, but I think this work is totally distinctive.  It belongs on its own in terms of American opera.”

Berger admits the realm of opera and musical theater is new territory to him.  “I’m fundamentally a chamber music composer, that’s where my passion and soul lies.  Every day there are new surprises and new lessons.  Even though this piece is big and dramatic, Rinde Eckert works on the slightest nuances, and it’s incredible.  Working with Kronos is also wonderful.  We have this symbiotic relationship where I give them something and they make it their own, and we go back and forth.  It’s great to trustingly release it to wonderful musicians.”

“In spite of the subject matter, there’s been a lot of camaraderie and discovery in the rehearsal,” Harrington added.  “I’m sure that will be continuing in Chicago.  There is a lot to be discussed still.”

While transferring a sensitive piece of music to the stage is no small feat, both Berger and Harrington recognize that presenting My Lai can influence our understanding of the past, present, and future.  “I’m reading about similar kinds of things now,” said Harrington.  “I think by having a little sense of the past, we might understand the present a little more.   I’m hoping that our audience will take away some sense that music and theater can perhaps, if we’re lucky, find ways to proceed that would be less violent, less destructive, and more hopeful.”


To learn more about the upcoming Chicago premiere of My Lai, visit the Harris Theater’s website.

 

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About the Lute, But Were Afraid To Ask – with Paul O’Dette

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Lutenist Paul O’Dette (Photo: Jennifer Girard)

Paul O’Dette is one of the most sought-after lute players in the world. In addition to being an active soloist, O’Dette is the co-artistic director of the Boston Early Music Festival, teaches at the Eastman School of Music, and records extensively, with credits on over 120 albums. His recording of Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfer won the 2015 Grammy for Best Opera Recording.

Before his upcoming solo recital presented by the Segovia Classical Guitar Series at Northwestern University on Saturday evening, O’Dette spoke about his Grammy winning recording and his instrument.

“I have been a great fan of Charpentier for a long time,” O’Dette said. “To me, one of the great masterpieces is his little opera La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfer. It’s an incomplete work – it only survives with the first two acts. You get as far as Orpheus coming out of the Underworld with Eurydice, but you don’t get the moment when he turns back and everything goes wrong.”

But, having an incomplete score didn’t stop O’Dette and his colleagues from performing this piece. “We staged the piece in 2010 at the Boston Early Music Festival paired with a pastorale by Charpentier called La Couronne de Fleurs. The pastorale is a poetry contest, so in the staging we included Orpheus as one of the singing contestants. So we started with La Couronne, then we performed La Descente d’Orphée. The moment when he comes out of the Underworld in Orphée, we skip to the end of La Couronne.”

The staged version is a bit different from the studio recording, however. “When we recorded it we decided to separate them on the album so it made a little more sense to listeners,” he explained. “So, we did them as two separate pieces. But we had a magnificent cast with the wonderful Aaron Sheehan in the title role.”

O’Dette and those who appeared on the recording were also a bit surprised by their Grammy success. “We were amazed when we were nominated for Grammy, because it’s a chamber opera. We were nominated several times in the past for big operas of Lully, and we had another one in the can – the opera Niobe by Augostino Steffani – we thought that might attract the attention of the Grammy voters. But we ended up winning for the Charpentier!”

From his extensive experience performing diverse repertoire, O’Dette is undoubtedly one of the most knowledgeable musicians in the field of early music. Since he’s also one of the world’s leading authorities on the lute, he answered a few questions about his instrument.


What is the origin of the lute?

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The oud, from which the lute descended

“The question of the origins of plucked string instruments is a very complicated one. There are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of which instruments came from the Far East, which came from India, and which came from the Middle East. But, to pick up the story where it’s relevant for us: the oud,  a plucked string instrument that was popular in Northern Africa and the Middle East during the Middle Ages, was the forerunner to the lute. It is still widely played throughout those areas today. It was introduced in Southern Europe, first in Sicily and then in Andalucía. There are a lot of pictures from the 12th and 13th centuries of people playing these instruments. These were unfretted because in Middle Eastern music there’s often a lot of sliding and bending of pitches which wasn’t the case in Western European Medieval music. Originally, they were played with a quill – usually an eagle quill – which was like a modern flat pick. Gradually, Europeans added other changes that made the instrument more suitable to their music. For example, Europeans added frets.”

What are some of the earliest pieces of music for solo lute?

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A particularly lavish edition of lute tabulature: Capirola’s Lute Manuscript of 1517

“In the second half of the fifteenth century, some German players realized it would be possible to play polyphonic music, that is music with more than one voice, if they started plucking instead of picking individual fingers of the right hand. That was really the start of the solo lute repertoire as we know it today. It developed in the end of the fifteenth century.”

How popular was the lute during it’s heyday?

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Gerrit van Honthorst, The Concert, 1623, oil on canvas, unframed: 123 × 206 cm (48 7/16 × 81 1/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Florian Carr Fund, 2013.38.1

“The lute was the most popular instrument in its heyday. It was ubiquitous in the 16th century and held a position roughly equivalent to the piano in the 19th century, which was the instrument that every educated member of society learned how to play. The lute was the first instrument that people would keep in their household, and it was the instrument of the court virtuoso musicians. The most prestigious courts of Europe engaged in very heated bidding wars for the best players.”

How many kinds of lute are there?

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“The lute is not a single instrument but a whole family of instruments. Lutes came in all different sizes: soprano, alto, tenor, bass, great bass, and even little sopranino instruments.  They could be played together in groups called consorts and you would create a wider spectrum of sound and a wider ranger of pitches. There were instruments with gut strings and instruments with medal strings, like the bandura. There were some instruments played with a pick like the cittern, which is a wire strung relative to the lute. The guitar evolved from also a member of the family which had been altered in the 15th century for bowed string instruments – the viola da mano or vihuela da mano, which is a waisted instrument with a shape like a guitar, and a less rounded back than the lute. The vihuela in Spain is basically a guitar-shaped lute. All of these instruments evolved in the 16th and 17th centuries to suit the repertoire that was being composed at the time.”

How many strings do lutes typically have?

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“Because the bass register became more and more important in all music throughout the 16th and 17th century, some changes to the instrument helped expand its range. All instruments were expanding the bass ranges. So the tendency was for the lute to acquire more and more strings. In the 16th century, the instrument started with 6 pairs of strings. By 1600, it had 8 or 9 pairs of strings. By the early 17th century, it had as many as 14 pairs of strings.”

How are lutes tuned?

 

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Theorbo Venice, 1630 or 1640. Ebony, ivory. L. 158.3 cm. Formely in the Correr Collection Paris, Musée de la musique – Cité de la musique. Inv. E.545

“In order to make the string length long enough for the strings to resonate at the correct frequency, it was almost impossible for the left hang to conveniently grab the string to play big chords. So what they did was to add a second peg box which allows you to have two ranks of strings: the short strings that you finger with the left hand, and the longer bass strings which would only be played as open strings like the harp. There were two versions of this instrument: one is the archlute – essentially a Renaissance lute with extra bass strings and which had the same time – the other is the theorbo (or chittarone) which had a longer string length for the short strings. But, in the theorbo it was impossible to tune some of their strings in their correct octaves.”

The lute can be so soft, did anyone ever try to make it louder?

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Artist: Laurent de La Hyre (French, Paris 1606–1656 Paris) Date: 1649 Medium: Oil on canvas Dimensions: 41 5/8 x 56 3/4 in. (105.7 x 144.1 cm)

“There is one and only time in the history of the lute that people were trying to develop a louder instrument. In the 16th century, people felt loud music was vulgar, obscene, and unrefined. They felt that the most beautiful, the most refined, the most sophisticated music was performed at a conversational level. That’s one reason the lute was so beloved – it had a delicacy and intimacy that resulted in very expressive and meaningful music.

“When the lute was used an accompanying instrument for performances celebrating the wedding of Ferdinand de Medici, another fascinating change was made to the lute. This is the only time in the history of the instrument people wanted to make it louder. In order to hear the lute in a space big enough to hold 1,000 people,

“They took a bass lute and tuned it up as high as it would go. They knew the top string would break immediately, but they didn’t care – they wanted to see what would happen with the middle and low register. Those lower registers became much more brilliant and resonant. They kept tuning higher and higher, eventually breaking the second string. When they got to the breaking point of the third string, they found this was when the instrument sounded best.

“Because the instrument was used as an accompanying instrument to virtuoso vocal music, it didn’t matter what octave the notes were. So rather than invent a new tuning, they simply put thicker strings on in place of the first and second strings tuned an octave lower than the strings would normally sound. So the singers could play the same chords with the same fingers they learned for decades without having to learn. But, as a result, the third string is the highest sounding one on the instrument. This kind of tuning in which the sequence of the strings is “out of order,” without the highest string on top, that’s called a re-entrant tuning. Quite a few plucked instruments that use this kind of tuning, like the baroque guitar for instance. The lowest pitch is in the middle, rather than at the bottom.”

Is there a “standard” tuning for lutes?

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Renaissance lute, labelled Alec Hodson, Maker, Lavenham, Suffolk 1949

“After re-entrant tuning was introduced in late sixteenth century Florence, more musicians began experimenting with new tunings, especially in France. These experiments were to change the resonance and the sonority, however, not the volume. There’s so many scordatura tunings – about 80 were in use. Each one has its own special color and resonance that sounds utterly unlike the other tunings. You could transcribe the music for one tuning and play it in another tuning, but it sounds completely different. It would be like changing spices in a recipe; it would completely change the results. Playing 17th century French music is rather difficult because of all these different tunings. Eventually, in the second half of the 17th century, the French, though particularly the Germans, settled on a tuning that’s a d minor chord. So the open strings, starting from the top, are tuned F-D-A-F-D-A, and then you get an octave of diatonically tuned bass strings tuned according to the key you’re playing. That’s the instrument we call the “baroque” lute today that Bach wrote for and the great virtuoso Sylvius Leopold Weiss wrote for.”

Are there any good solo lute parts in large, concerted works?

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Caravaggio’s “The Lute Player” (1596), The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

“It’s very common in the 18th century in Germany and Austria to have a very special aria with a lute obbligato in it. There’s a fantastic archlute obbligato that Handel wrote in his cantata Clori, Tirsi, Fileno which was obviously a show-piece for a lute player at the time. Pieces like this are very expressive, very intimate, they have a special color that sets up a real contrast from all of the agitation and the drama that’s happening on either side of that aria.”

What can the lute do that other instruments can’t?

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“The Duet: A Self Portrait of the Artist with his Wife, Judith Leyster” by Jan Miense Molenaer (1610 – 1668). Oil on panel, 16 5/8 by 20 1/4 in.; 42.2 by 51.4 cm.

Musical instruments have their own personality, their own spectrum of colors which make them distinctive from other instruments. For instance, you can certainly play the music of Dowland on the classical guitar, and many people do. It can be done very sensitively and very stylishly if you understand the style and the performance practice. Because the guitar has relatively thick strings and a relatively thick soundboard, the basic sound profile of the classical guitar is much darker than the lute, and less transparent. It’s the transparency and clarity of the lute that give it the distinctive flavor it has. That’s what makes it ideal for contrapuntal music – you can hear all the voices so distinctly and so clearly.

Because of the low tension of the string and the thickness of the soundboard, you have a quick attack and decay on the lute. The lute doesn’t sustain as much on the guitar, which is a great benefit when you’re playing fast music. Very fast runs and very intricate passage benefit from an instrument that speaks quickly and gets out of the way quickly. Then, you can hear the articulation of the individual notes easily. In many respects you can compare the difference to a Viennese fortepiano that Mozart would’ve played on and a modern Steinway. I always encourage people to stop thinking in terms of progress and improvement. Instruments are not like computers. You’re not comparing the speed or the number of tasks it can do simultaneously.   It’s about the qualities. If you get the right instrument for the right repertoire, you almost always find the voice of the music in a clearer and more vivid way than if you play it on a different instrument.


To learn about Paul O’Dette’s upcoming performance with the Segovia Classical Guitar Series at Northwestern University, visit Northwestern’s website.

How Stevie Wonder’s Hit Songs Got to Chicago’s Symphony Center

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Because the names Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner are inscribed on the façade of Symphony Center, it may come as a surprise to some that the music of Stevie Wonder will pour out of Orchestra Hall this weekend.

The reason? Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) return to Chicago for a residency at Symphony Center that includes three performances. The first of which is called “Jazz in the Key of Life,” riffing off title of Stevie Wonder’s 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life. The program features new arrangements of Wonder’s music, along with tunes by Burt Bacharach, Donny Hathaway, and more.

But, how does a band transform a hit song by Stevie Wonder into something new?

Chicago-born trombonist Vincent Gardner curated the program and arranged some of the tunes. He explained how he prepared one piece on the program, inspired by Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star,” which appeared on Songs in the Key of Life.

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The original version is scored for solo voice, back-up vocals, flute, alto sax, tenor sax, two trumpets, guitar, bass, and percussion (including timbales). The multitalented Stevie Wonder of course took lead vocals and played the piano, but he also played percussion (!) on the original track.

Other musicians have also arranged this song. Urbie Green did this the same year Stevie Wonder released the original tune, with a band that did not include trumpets or timbales, but did include vibraphone and electric keyboards, creating an altogether different feel. Most recently, Stevie Wonder himself joined Daft Punk to performed part of the song during a funky medley at the 2014 Grammy Awards.

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Trombonist and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra member Vincent Gardner

Gardner said that he first “thought about the lyrics and what the song is about. The first line is ‘For you there might be a brighter star / But through my eyes the light of you is all I see.’ So I wanted to create sounds that are associated with stars and science-fiction.”

To create a sense of the starry great beyond, he “added piccolo and clarinet moving chromatically, sounding like falling stars to create an atmospheric background effect.”

“When I hear the tune, I think of someone telling a story in the desert – somewhere where you can see the stars so clearly. So I guess the piece is set in Sub-Saharan Africa, sort of, and I have this almost African grove under the bass line.”

Stevie Wonder’s version of the tune has an Afro-Cuban feel. “I like the original groove, and I had another idea for how the groove could be, and I found something kind of in the middle that worked. It’s a little closer to a cascara rhythm, so the drum pattern is similar.”

Gardner spent three-to-four days arranging “Another Star” while working concurrently on other projects. Then, he brought his charts to band rehearsal.

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Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

“We rehearsed this tune just like we do everything else,” Gardner explained. “If we have a concert coming up, we work for three days at the beginning of the week from 10:30 to 5:30 with a break for lunch. In that period we can go through ten or eleven tunes that none of us have ever heard or new arrangements that none of us have played before.

“First, we just read everything through. Then, we start to work on finer details and the piece starts to grow. But at first, you just wanna hear it the way it was written.”

During rehearsals, Gardner and his colleagues make changes when necessary.

“In ‘Another Star,’ there was some stuff that wasn’t really popping out the way that I wanted it to. Because at first, I had heard it in Finale, the music notation software that I use.” In rehearsals, he said he and his colleagues are always joking, “Finale played it great, why can’t I hear it?”

For example, when Gardner wasn’t hearing what he wanted to, his colleague Ted Nash, a saxophonist in JLCO and a composer himself, made some suggestions. “There’s one part where we decided to change out piccolo for flute when it doubles the melody, and I think that change in register really improved it.”

Stevie Wonder’s music was ripe for arranging, Gardner said, because “he understands the construction of a good melody in the tradition of all the great American writers like Gershwin and Cole Porter.

“When he writes something, there’s a line that’s discernable to the audience, but he also has the knowledge to make excellent arrangements. And what’s even better is that a lot of music doesn’t get people up and singing and dancing, it has a message, too. Pop music doesn’t really do that so much now.”

Besides “Another Star” audiences will hear Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love is Fair” and “Smile Please,” along with other new arrangements of popular tunes.


 

To learn more about the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s Chicago residency, visit the CSO’s website.

The True Origins of Gershwin’s “Summertime”

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Lyric Opera Presents
George Gershwin's 
Porgy and Bess
Eric Owens stars (Porgy)
Adina Aaron (Bess)
Jermaine Smith (Sportin' Life), 
Eric Greene (Crown), and 
Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi (Clara)

 © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2014

Eric Owens and Adina Aaron in Porgy & Bess. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

“Summertime” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is doubtless one of the one most popular songs in the Great American Songbook. But did you know that neither the tune to “Summertime” nor the lyrics are by George Gershwin?

First, let’s start with the lyrics.

Porgy and Bess is based upon the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward. Published in 1925, the novel was first adapted for the stage in 1927 by the author’s wife, Dorothy Heyward. The play, in turn, inspired George Gershwin’s Porgy, which he called “an American folk opera.”

DuBose Heyward collaborated with Ira Gershwin to craft the libretto for Porgy and Bess, even spending time together in Charleston, South Carolina, to research African American communities and their music.

The lyrics to “Summertime” are by Heyward. Stephen Sondheim, the acclaimed composer and lyricist, wrote in his book Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation But Missed the History Books:

“DuBose Heyward has gone largely unrecognized as the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theater – namely, those of Porgy and Bess. There are two reasons for this, and they are connected. First, he was primarily a poet and novelist, and his only song lyrics were those that he wrote for Porgy. Second, some of them were written in collaboration with Ira Gershwin, a full-time lyricist, whose reputation in the musical theater was firmly established before the opera was written. But most of the lyrics in Porgy – and all of the distinguished ones – are by Heyward. I admire his theater songs for their deeply felt poetic style and their insight into character. It’s a pity he didn’t write any others. His work is sung, but he is unsung.”

Interestingly, had Heyward and Gershwin used the lyrics to “Motherless Child,” the song would’ve worked fine in the context of Porgy and Bess.

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“Motherless Child,” first print edition (1899)

Who gets credit for the music of “Summertime”? That question is a little more complicated. The melody is strikingly similar to an African American spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Many commonly known spirituals today have come down to us from a collection of songs gathered by a white scholar during his visits to African American communities near Charleston, South Carolina, and published under the title Slave Songs of the United States in 1867.

While “Motherless Child” was not part of Slave Songs, a printed score of the song was available in print as early as 1899. When Gershwin and Heyward spent time in South Carolina to create Porgy, or perhaps even before, they could’ve encountered “Motherless Child.”

The melody of the first printed version of “Motherless Child” only bears superficial similarities to “Summertime.” The most significant difference is the key. “Summertime” sounds dark and doleful, in part, because it’s in a minor key. This printed version of “Motherless Child” is in a major mode (with a few blue notes thrown in at the end).

Of course, spirituals exist in countless versions. By the time that Gershwin and Heyward were doing their research for Porgy in South Carolina, “Motherless Child” had changed into something decidedly different.

Paul Robeson, the great singer, actor, and civil rights activist, recorded the song in the 1930s. In his version, we could easily replace the words to “Motherless Child” with those to “Summertime” to hear how the original tune was subtly changed.

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After the premiere of Porgy, it didn’t take too long for folks to catch on to the similarities between “Summertime,” which quickly became a standard, and “Motherless Child.” The incomparable Mahalia Jackson apprehended on the connection and even recorded the two songs together as a medley:

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So, were the Gershwins and Heyward, a group of white men, stealing traditional African American music for their own profit?

Yes and no.

The history of Porgy and Bess is a complicated one. On the one hand, the opera is a celebration of African American culture. On the other hand, the primary agents who created it were white, and the Gershwin estate is what profits from “Summertime,” not the community that created “Motherless Child.” What’s more, the representation of African Americans in Porgy has been praised and criticized by people of all colors as being nothing more than a collection of stereotypes.

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The first printed edition of “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess”

A thoughtful new interpretation of Porgy by Gwynne Kuhner Brown sheds new light on the creation of Porgy and how we can understand these complicated issues. In her article “Porgy and Bess as Collaboration,” printed in Blackness in Opera (2012), she writes:

“The history of Porgy and Bess is not simply one of white victimizers and black victims. African Americans have actively engaged with the work from the beginning: helping to create and shape it in a variety of ways, taking roles or refusing them, and deepening American society’s understanding of its various meanings through analysis, criticism, and commentary. Most fundamentally, Porgy and Bess relies on African American performs to accept, inhabit, and essentially complete the work. This completion was begun in direct collaboration with George Gershwin, and continues today.”

Since “Summertime” was first heard in 1935, it has become one of the most recorded songs in history. The Summertime Connection, an online database that compiles information about various versions of the tune, states that as of 2011, there have been at lest 33,345 recordings of “Summertime,” 25,998 of which the website has in its own collection.

A handful of recordings reveal the variety of interpretations that abound of this classic American tune.

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Leontyne Price recorded what may be the ultimate operatic version of this song. Price played the role of Bess during the 1952 revival tour by Belvins Davis and Robert Breen. The production visited several cities including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, and even went on to Europe before returning to the U.S. for a long run in New York. Price was only 25 years old, but clearly she was more than ready for a career in opera.

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Nina Simone was known for several songs from Porgy and Bess. She recorded a haunting “I Loves You Porgy” just days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in a concert she dedicated to him. Her version of “Summertime” recorded live in 1959 at The Town Hall in New York is no less chilling.

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Billy Stewart recorded one of the most commercially successful versions of “Summertime,” which was #10 on the Billboard 100 in 1966. Stewart recorded for Chicago’s Chess Records playing backup for many R&B legends including Bo Diddley. This arrangement features a brass band, funky guitar, and Stewart’s signature scatting.

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The Walker Brothers created a “wall of sound” in their cover of “Summertime,” which was featured on their second album “Portrait” in 1966. The track is distinctive because of Scott Walker’s soulful baritone and the rich vocal harmonies that support him.

What are your favorite recordings of “Summertime”? Tell us in the comments.

We’re playing our favorite recordings of “Summertime” on Friday, January 22, 2016 as part of Theater Day.

CSO Violist Li-Kuo Chang Checks in From China

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li-kuo chang

Li-Kuo Chang, Assistant Principal Viola of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, joined WFMT’s Carl Grapentine today from his hometown of Shanghai, China, where the CSO is playing concerts as part of their Asia tour.

 

Barbara Gaines, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Artistic Director, Shares her Favorite Theater Music

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Barbara Gaines, Artistic Director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Have you ever wondered what music stage directors love? Barbara Gaines, founder and Artistic Director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, told us her favorite music for the theater. Gaines is the winner of the Joseph Jefferson Award, Laurence Olivier Award, and a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater. Recently she has directed the musical Sense and Sensibility at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where she has directly more than thirty of the Bard’s plays, and the Marriage of Figaro at Lyric Opera of Chicago.


“Angel Eyes” by Matt Dennis and Lyrics by Earl Brent

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“I’m kind of a Rachmaninoff or Rolling Stones person, so I didn’t know the full Sinatra canon. But within a week I’d bought every single Sinatra CD I could, listened to ‘Where Do I Go?’ many times over, and also heard ‘Angel Eyes,’ which I immediately realized was the song about Cordelia, Lear’s youngest and most devoted daughter.  ‘Excuse me while I disappear’ – the song’s last line, is incredibly resonant for this play. Lear makes both Cordelia and Kent disappear, he banishes them. Ultimately, Lear disappears, too: from his kingdom, from the homes of his daughters, from his sanity, from his life.”

“Contessa perdono” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro

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“I love this story because it is about one day, twenty-four hours. And all of these jealousies flare up.  And the joy is that actually we can see ourselves in these people. Because when you think you are in lust or in love, we all behave rather radically and in extreme ways. It’s fun because you can really laugh at yourself while you laugh along with the characters in Figaro. I love that about it.”

“Sunday” Act 1 Finale, from Steven Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George

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“My favorite musical is Sunday in the Park with George, because until I saw that music I thought I was the lonely person in the world. Because nobody understood my profound need to ‘finish the hat’.  And the end of the first act is insanely beautiful.  To me that score is a homerun in terms of my life and how I am seeking to live it.”

“Wrong Side of Five and Thirty” from Paul Gordon’s Sense & Sensibility

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“Paul Gordon is a conduit between Jane Austin and our contemporary world. His ability to make human beings out of these characters from a book is his gift. And working with him on this show was a delight.”


We are exploring music for the theater all day on Friday, January 22, 2016 on WFMT. Stream your favorite theater music at wfmt.com

To learn more about Barbara Gaines, visit the Chicago Shakespeare Theater website.