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LISTEN: Rock Musician Bryce Dessner Teams with Chicago Youth Symphony

Bryce_Dessner_Photo by Anne Mie Dreves_square_2

Bryce_Dessner_Photo by Anne Mie Dreves_square_745


The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO), under the leadership of its music director, Allen Tinkham, and relatively new executive director, Joshua Simonds, has been pushing the boundaries of classical music for years now. With their 12 adventurous programming awards from ASCAP, the organization that represents music publishers, they’ve become one of the premiere new music organizations in the city of Chicago.

That the CYSO is performing new music on their spring concert this Sunday is nothing new. What is notable, though, is that they’ll be performing a piece by and with composer Bryce Dessner, better known as a member of the rock group The National. He spoke with me in the interview you can hear above.

Dessner is a trained classical guitarist and composer, and his works — including St. Catherine By the Sea, being performing on Sunday — have been well-received by critics and audiences. I enjoyed talking with him not only about his compositions and the relationship between rock and classical, but also about all the work he does convening and curating festivals that feature classical music among other genres.

Classical organizations, eager to reach new and younger audiences, are hoping that the rock-star power of musicians like Dessner will get people through the door. This past January, a Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW concert that I attended had a fuller crowd then usual. It turns out that one of the pieces being performed was by Jonny Greenwood, of the prominent band Radiohead. Many who came thought he was going to be there too (he wasn’t).

Rock and classical will collide again in June, when the CYSO performs with Ben Folds, the rock pianist who has been known to insert quotes from Gershwin into rock songs and whose shows are exciting, even raucous affairs featuring sing-a-longs.


Minnesota Orchestra To Perform Historic Concerts in Cuba



This coming Friday, May 15, at 7:00 pm central and running till 10:00 pm , WFMT will join American Public Media for a live broadcast from the Teatro Nacional in Havana, Cuba, featuring the Minnesota Orchestra.

The Orchestra is joined by pianist Frank Fernández and two Cuban choirs in an all-Beethoven program that features the “Choral Fantasy” and the “Eroica” symphony. Osmo Vanska conducts.

This performance and broadcast are the first of an American orchestra from Cuba in many years, and follow President Obama’s move to normalize relations in December 2014.

This historic live broadcast from Havana will also be heard on stations around the U.S, and is hosted by Brian Newhouse.

For up-to-date information about the orchestra’s travels in Cuba, visit Minnesota Public Radio on tumblr.

LISTEN: Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Piece of Music that Changed His Life

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor 
Philharmonia Orchestra
Royal Festival Hall 080918

Esa-Pekka Salonen Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor Philharmonia Orchestra Royal Festival Hall 080918

Last week, I had the opportunity to record a conversation with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish composer-conductor widely considered to be one of the most important in his field.

After 17 years as Music Director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he told me that he enjoys the extra time and freedom he has now to devote long periods of time now to a single subject.

And this month, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its audiences benefit from this extra freedom with the French Reveries and Passions Festival that he has curated and that continues for
another two weeks.

Salonen likes his freedom and current work/life balance so much, in fact, that he said that it would “take a lot” for him to return to a music directorship right now, which will be a disappointment to many in New York who would love for him to take the helm of the New York Philharmonic after Alan Gilbert departs in 2017.

The New York Times recently described Salonen as the “dream choice” to direct what is one of the oldest symphony orchestras both in the United States and the world.

In our conversation, we also talked about the iPad commercial he starred in, which received much attention in the classical world because it seemed to represent a breaking-out into mainstream culture.

And finally, we discussed the three major works programmed on this festival, one of which, he said, he heard as a child and inspired him to pursue a career in music.

And where did he hear it? On the radio, of course.

Our conversation will be broadcast on 98.7 WMT and stream live on on Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at 9:00 pm central.

See you there, and also see you at Orchestra Hall for this enriching Festival full of works we probably won’t have the chance to hear again for a while – in this city at least.

Berlin Philharmonic: May take a year to choose new conductor



BERLIN (AP) — The Berlin Philharmonic says it could take as long as a year to find a replacement for outgoing chief conductor Simon Rattle after the orchestra’s musicians were unable to agree upon a candidate.

The orchestra said Tuesday that 123 musicians met for more than 11 hours Monday behind closed doors in a church in Berlin’s upscale Dahlem neighborhood and held many votes but couldn’t get the majority needed to elect a successor to Rattle, who leaves in 2018.

Spokeswoman Elisabeth Hilsdorf would not give details on how many candidates were considered nor who was in the running for the prestigious job.

She says: “We said from the beginning it will be a secret and kept as a secret.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

10 Facts About the Mother of Modern Music: Hildegard


Composer, musician, and mystic Hildegard of Bingen was a visionary in all senses of the word. Read more about her and her contributions to every field from music to medicine below.



  1. Hildegard, born in the 11th century, is considered the earliest named composer.


  1. Her sung morality play, Ordo Virtutum, is often considered one of the earliest operas.


  1. Besides the Ordo, we know that she composed at least sixty-nine musical works.


  1. She invented her own language – the Lingua ignota (“unknown language”).


  1. Hildegard wrote books on every topic from mysticism to medicine.


  1. Hildegard practically invented “holistic” medicine, and her two-volume work Causes and Cures advocates for a “green,” natural approach to healing.


  1. Her most important books were three visionary works, like the illustrated Scivias, which describes twenty-six of her apocalyptic visions.


  1. She was a prolific letter writer who corresponded with the most important political and religious figures of her time. Over 400 of her letters survive.


  1. As the leader of her community, Hildegard moved to St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150 to obtain more freedom for her and her nuns.


  1. Though she led a monastic life, Hildegard traveled widely, was influential during her lifetime, and continues to inspire us today.

The Sounds of Global Cities

WFMT is taking you on a musical trip around the globe from May 25 – May 29, during the 2015 Chicago Forum on Global Cities, hosted by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Financial Times. Each weekday at 8:00 am on the Morning Program with Carl Grapentine and at 6:00 pm on Evenings with Suzanne Nance we will air a piece of music that best represents one of the 10 cities below:

Berlin, Chicago, Dubai, London, New York, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo

What pieces of music transports you to these 10 global cities?


A Day of One-Hit Wonders



We’re playing one-hit wonders throughout the day: composers who are remembered for primarily one composition.

On The Morning Program with Carl Grapentine, you’ll hear an hour of music by Russian one-hit wonders including Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Ippolitov-Ivanov.

On Middays with Lisa Flynn, you’ll hear Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue in D, Humperdink’s Hänsel und Gretel Suite, and an excerpt from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana.

On Afternoons with Kerry Frumkin, you’ll hear the famous aria “Vesti la giubbia” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci during an hour of one-hit wonders from Italy, in addition to an hour of one-hit wonders for a pops concert.

Tune in all day to hear these one-hit wonders and more, and tell us your favorite one-hit wonders in the comments below.

QUIZ: Guess the Composer by Their Facial Hair

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Star Soprano Kate Royal Makes CSO Debut in Rare French Works



Star soprano Kate Royal makes her Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut this week in a program of rarely performed French works: Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges and Debussy’s cantata La damoiselle élue.

The program, titled Salonen Conducts Ravel, is part of the CSO’s French Reveries and Passions Festival, curated by composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen himself.

Royal, who has collaborated with Salonen previously, is in demand with some of the world’s most illustrious conductors including Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Charles Mackerras, Vladimir Jurowski, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Though the London native has sung some of the oldest and most beloved operas in the repertoire by Monteverdi and Mozart, Royal is particularly drawn to and sought-after to perform in more modern operas.

She said in a phone interview that performing 20th and 21st century operas is “very tricky, but once these things come together will all the right elements, they are so incredibly powerful. I think part of that is because they’re not just pretty tunes that people can almost let wash over them. You have to be involved, you have to invest.”

They’re not just pretty tunes that people can almost let wash over them. You have to be involved, you have to invest.Kate Royal, soprano

Ravel’s supernatural one-act opera L’enfant et les sortileges (The Child and the Spells) is performed only occasionally in Europe and even less frequently in the United States. “It’s a lovely thing to be a part of,” she said. “I have not sung the piece before, so I’m sort of learning it as we go along with rehearsals.”

The opera, with a libretto by Nobel Prize nominee Colette, is in some ways a precursor to Maurice Sendak’s iconic Where the Wild Things Are. A child throws a tantrum in his bedroom, which later transforms into a garden with singing flora and fauna. Ultimately, he returns to the safe arms of his mother.

In L’enfant, Royal is responsible for three separate roles. “I play a widowed bat, a shepherdess, and very briefly in the last 30 seconds, an owl,” she explained. “It’s quite a challenge because each part is small but so heavily characterized. It’s a very interesting exercise in being very, very clear in your characterization.”

“The first role of the shepherdess, we’re actually part of the wallpaper in the child’s room, and it’s a very pastoral scene in this wallpaper. The chorus joins me and the shepherd. It’s a unique idea. It’s very clever.” Then, she continued, “I have these very ferocious few lines as the bat,” and “at the end, I sing some literally sort of hooting chromatic bars.”

Though the the CSO’s performances of L’enfant are in concert, Ravel’s orchestrations are vivid enough that costumes and sets are not necessary to set the scene. The percussion section is particularly diverse, and contains everything from traditional instruments like timpani and xylophone to everyday objects like a whip and a cheese grater!

“Interestingly, a lot of the vocal parts also have a percussion element to them,” Royal explained. “So for example with the bat, I’m constantly going between the vocal lines and making these sort of cutting sounds. There’s very much a sense that everyone’s a part of the orchestra.”

Royal urges the audience to actively participate in the drama, saying, “The key to this piece is the audience actually, and the audience’s imagination, and the audience’s freedom and trust in the music.”

“There’s something about opening yourself up to this fantastical world, and in the opera of course it’s through the eyes of the child. So we ask the audience to regress and to let their imaginations run wild. That’s the way to experience this piece.”

To have a couple of hours to wallow in this sea of amazing Debussy? We’re pretty lucky that we get to have music in our lives. This is our food. It’s an amazing privilegeKate Royal, soprano

Debussy’s La damoiselle élue (The Blessed Damozel) is another imaginative work that transports the audience to a world outside our own. The cantata is inspired by a poem and companion painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose “damozel” (damsel) is Lenore from Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem The Raven, who grieves for her lover left on earth.

The cantata that Debussy wrote inspired by Rossetti’s Damozel is so rarely performed that “nobody knows it,” Royal said. “Amazingly, a lot of the singers I have been working with on the Ravel are French, and they’ve never heard the piece either.”

“I’m very, very familiar with all the work of Debussy, but I have not sung this piece before,” she confessed. “So it’s been a real opening of the eyes and ears when I was asked to sing it and I first heard it. The poem is so wonderful that it’s based on. The English connection for me felt so strong, but bizarrely it doesn’t feel English at all; it feels unbelievably French.”

Debussy’s dramatic cantata is uniquely scored for two female soloists, women’s chorus, and orchestra. “It’s so gentle, and it’s so feminine,” Royal said. “Everything about it is so feminine…It’s this combination of chastity and sensuality” that gives the piece an otherworldly sound.

Though the piece is new to Royal, she is thrilled to explore what she describes as “a beautiful character, and so heartfelt and so honest. And she’s just speaking her heart. That in itself – the simplicity and the honesty – is so special.”

“For me, that music is so luxurious and you can really kind of wallow in it,” she said with a satisfied chuckle just before an afternoon of rehearsals. “To have a couple of hours to wallow in this sea of amazing Debussy? We’re pretty lucky that we get to have music in our lives. This is our food. It’s an amazing privilege.”

And what a privilege to hear Kate Royal in these rarely performed works! Rounding out the program is Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. To explore more about the works on the program and others included in the Festival, visit:

5 Mexican Composers You Should Know on Cinco de Mayo


Celebrate Cinco de Mayo by learning more about Mexico’s most celebrated composers of the past and present. Program Host Candice Agree and Interactive Content Producer Stephen Raskauskas have picked 5 Mexican composers you should know because of their incredible contributions to the world of music. Read more about some of Mexico’s most influential composers below, and tune into 98.7 WFMT or steam online today to hear works by some of these composers.

PonceManuel María Ponce

1882, Fresnillo – d. 1948, Mexico City

One of the great geniuses of Mexican music and an avid musicologist, Ponce used his vast collection of traditional Mexican folksongs in his romantic works, a synthesis of Mexico’s cultures which resonates to this day. Andrés Segovia encouraged Ponce to write for the guitar. Ponce’s Concierto del Sur premiered in Montevideo October 4, 1941 with Segovia as soloist and the composer himself as conductor.

Carlos_ChavezCarlos Chávez

1899, Mexio City – d. 1978, Mexico City

Carlos Chávez was one of Mexico’s most important musical personalities and one of the twentieth century’s great composers, dedicated to creating a Mexican music style. The youngest of six siblings, as a youngster he studied piano with Manuel Ponce, and was quite at home with Mexico’s indigenous music through his mother, who was of Indian descent. Silvestre Revueltas, born just six months after Chavez, was greatly influenced by the cosmopolitan composer:  Chávez shared an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village with Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, strolled down Parisian boulevards with Paul Dukas, and was friends with Aaron Copland and Edgar Varèse.

Silvestre-revueltasSilvestre Revueltas

1899, Santiago Papasquiaro – d. 1940, Mexico City

Known as the “great free spirit of Mexican music,” Revueltas was in his thirties before he became serious about composing. But once he did, orchestral, opera, and chamber music scores filled with color and contrast and bite flowed from his pen. Revueltas wrote, “Why should I put on boots and climb mountains for Mexican folk-lore if I have the spirit of Mexico deep within me?” He was only 40 when he died of alcoholism-related pneumonia. His most famous work, Sensemayá, written in 1937, more recently was used in the 2005 film Sin City.

Marquez 2012Arturo Márquez

1950, Álamos –

Márquez, the son of a mariachi and the grandson of a Mexican folk musician, was surrounded by Mexican music from an early age. However, some of his most popular works are strongly indebted to danzón, a Cuban style that evolved from contradanza, also known as habanera. His series of Danzones have been performed around the world, and have been choreographed by several ballet companies. Márquez is the first musician to receive the “La Medalla De Oro De Bellas Artes de Mexico” (Gold Medal of Fine Arts of Mexico), and has received other prestigious awards including a Fulbright Scholarship.

Large_GabrielaOrtizGabriela Ortiz

(b. – 1964, Mexico City –

Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellow Gabriela Oritz is one of Mexico’s most prominent living composers. Her music blends traditional elements with the avant-garde. She has had recent premieres and commissions with leading orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Esa- Pekka Salonen, and ensembles like the Grammy Award winning Kronos Quartet. Ortiz has studied at the Ecole Normale de Musique (Paris), Conservatorio Nacional de Música (Mexico City), Guildhall School of Music & Drama (London), and the University of London, where she received her PhD in electroacoustic music composition.