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McDowell County: Resilience and Rebirth

Classically Speaking

Classical music in West Virginia and Beyond

Hamlet in HD

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By Carole Carter
 · March 30, 2010

I’d never seen Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet, nor was I acquainted with the music, so you could say I started with a clean slate. I liked it.

Now, if you’re a raging Anglophile and/or don’t like anyone messing with your Shakespeare, don’t bother with this. I think it’s closer to the Dumas version of the story. Let’s just say, Thomas and the librettists took “liberties” with the plot and characters. This may explain why the opera didn’t inspire much interest early on – like for a century!

If the goal was to pare down the cast and eliminate the Bard’s web of plots however, this is a successful tale. The music was pleasant enough, although not memorable. I didn’t come out humming any melodies.


Hamlet finale
Bodies are strewn across a bare stage near the opera's end.

The production was spare and somber. The sets were high, dark curving walls that moved to provide a plethora of backdrops, often leaving the stage almost barren. This did allow for some effective lighting, throwing huge shadows on the walls. It probably played better on the screen than live on stage at the Met.

The chorus costumes were dark hues: black, grey, brown. Only the principals wore any color, and that was effective. While you usually don’t see stark white on stage, both the ghost of Hamlet’s father and Ophelia were dressed so. Of course, it made perfect sense for the ghost. Ophelia looked as if she was ready to be wed at a moment’s notice, which she was. And it showed up the blood really well. Oh yes, she doesn’t drown in the lake. She stabs herself. Several times. And of course, she negotiates quite an extended coloratura ‘mad scene’ at the same time.


Hamlet mad scene
Ophelia emotes - and sings - to the end.


Keenlyside, Simon
Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet

One of the best qualities of the production was the acting and singing of the British baritone Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet. He was especially effective in this HD version which allows for those magnificent close-ups. He’s an astonishing presence on stage.

The coloratura Marlis Petersen was brought in after the original Ophelia canceled because of illness. The German soprano finished a run of Medea in Vienna and hopped a plane for New York with barely a week’s notice. She made for a very fragile and introspective Ophelia, but perhaps not as “mad” as expected from Natalie Dessay.

Larmore, Mezzo Jennifer
Mezzo Jennifer Larmore


I particularly enjoyed the performance of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore as Gertrude. She’s Claudius’ accomplice in this version (as is Polonius by the way). Her blood red, and mustard green/brown costumes were richly conspiratorial. She’s a scene stealer.
 
Toby Spence’s Laertes was a tenor relief in a sea of baritones and basses.
 


Met HD control room
Metropolitan Opera's studio control for HD transmissions

I understand this HD experiment has drawn great audiences. Even the Huntington Cinemark audience has grown, perhaps doubled in attendance since the first offering I saw last fall. One of the strong attractions is the cinematic quality, but it also has its drawbacks.

You see the singers in close-up, something that would never happen in the opera house. However, the voices are transmitted through audio equipment, and thus always heard and always in balance. You see only the director’s focus, rather than the expanse of stage of a full production. So in a sense these HD offerings are not totally “live.”

These qualities are particularly welcomed by younger audience members, accustomed to the wonders of cinematography. This may or may not result in a new audience for live opera however. It might also divert attention and funding from local productions. Only time will tell.

But don't take my word for it. See for yourself. There's an encore presentation Wednesday, April 14 at 6:30 pm.. The final offering of this season is Renée Fleming starring in Rossini's Armida - another unknown to me. Check 'em out! 

Voicing the Organ

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By Carole Carter
 · March 25, 2010

This just in: The Charleston Daily Mail posted a fabulous video!

In recent posts, I’ve talked about personnel arriving from Casavant Frères to “voice” the organ.
 
So exactly what does it mean to “voice” the organ?

I’ve been doing a little research on the subject, and thought I’d share some of my new-found knowledge.

Voicing is a lot more complicated than simply tuning the instrument. This process has to do with giving the organ its own unique sound and making sure it fits in its new home.


Casavant voicers
Jean-Sébastien DuFour and Daniel Fortin at the console

The art of voicing requires our two voicers, Jean-Sébastien DuFour and Daniel Fortin, to adjust the pipes for brightness and volume in our sanctuary.

Each stop (control knob) may manipulate a number of pipes (rank) and they must make all those pipes sound right together.

Then they must take the placement of the instrument and the acoustics of the room into consideration to create a “musically cohesive ensemble.”  (Casavant Frères Web site)

An organ is actually a hybrid instrument, a combination of wind and keyboard instruments.

The sound is created by air vibrating in the pipes: the longer the pipe, the lower the pitch. Of course, the shorter pipes result in higher pitches. The organ sits on a wind chest.

Our organ (specs) uses an electric slider mechanism to force air steadily into the wind chest, and then into the bottom of the pipes themselves.

The keyboards and pedalboard are used to tell a system of valves which pipes to open and close, allowing the air in or shutting it out.

Confused yet? Well, that’s the basics. There’s more, but I’ll leave that to those of you who want to delve deeper. (See links below)

 

Jean-Sébastien and Daniel do all those complicated adjustments. As a matter of fact, they finish voicing our organ today.


Cleaning out pipes
Jean-Sébastien readies small pipes for installation.

Of course, one day early in their visit, I found Jean-Sébastien seated on the floor, taking a long-handled brush to a bunch of the smaller pipes, cleaning them out.

Links:
The Art of Voicing  by George Ashdown Audsley
NPR interview with Miles Hoffman and excerpt from The NPR Classical Music Companion 

Next installment: audio, I hope!

Previous posts:
 
Part 1: Delivering the baby 

Part 2: Some assembly required

Part 3: More assembly required 

Wheeling Symphony 2010-11 Season

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By Mona Seghatoleslami
 · March 24, 2010
Wheeling Symphony Mini Logo

The Wheeling Symphony has announced its 2010-11 season.  I spoke with Maestro Andre Raphel Smith about the music they’ll be playing.

Parts of that interview were featured in short stories on the radio
(you can now listen to them online: one and two.) 

Here’s more of our discussion:

This audio player requires Adobe Flash

The season listing can be downloaded as a Word document on Wheeling Symphony Web site.  Here’s a summary:

Masterworks I “SENSATIONAL TCHAIKOVSKY” September 24, 2010

Prokofieff: Romeo and Juliet (selections)    
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major (William Wolfram, piano)    
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5  

Masterworks II “GUITAR MAGIC AND WV ARTISTS” November 5, 2010

Ravel: Ma Mere l’Oye Suite (Mother Goose Suite)   
John Beall: Raven Rock (WV Composer; Faculty, West Virginia University)
Rodrigo:  Concierto de Aranjuez    (Eliot Fisk, guitar)    
Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 “Organ Symphony”  (Robert Troeger, organ)

Masterworks III “SEASONS OF AN AMERICAN LIFE” – A WSO Festival on Nature and Folk Music. February 18, 2011

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture
O’Connor:  The American Seasons (Seasons of an American Life) (Mark O’Connor, violin)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 (Pastorale)  

Masterworks IV “MAGNIFICENT MAHLER”- 150thAnniversary Season of Mahler’s birth, 100th week anniversary of Mahler’s death.  May 20, 2011

Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela 
Strauss: Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) (Lianne Coble, soprano)
Mahler: Symphony No. 1  

Earlier this month, the WV Symphony announced its season.  You can read (and listen) to more about that here.

Approaching Chopin

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By Aran Jenkins
 · March 23, 2010
Shakespeare Portrait
William Shakespeare

I have often considered William Shakespeare to be the greatest writer of all time. Having studied acting technique for several years at West Virginia University, digesting the writing of Shakespeare in my spare time as well as scholastically, I found his expressive powers seemed to be limitless. 

As an actor, I always longed for roles in Shakespeare’s plays; pretty much every actor dreams of playing Hamlet.  Alas, actors and actresses playing Shakespeare also make the mistake of trying to add drama to the text, which does not “hold the mirror up to nature.” Such interpretations can have a cheapening effect on performances and veer dangerously in the direction of melodrama.

Performing in productions from Shakespeare’s oeuvre was my highest and most challenging theatrical ambition. To dissect the words of Shakespeare was daunting to say the least!

That brings me to the man of the month of March: Frederic Chopin! If Shakespeare is truly the greatest writer of the English language, then surely Chopin was the Shakespeare of the piano. Chopin’s grasp of the language of music was equally unrivaled. He was by all accounts an innovator that stretched the common conceptions of the instrument beyond anyone of his day, even inventing forms such as the ballade. 

This is what Franz Liszt said of his friend Chopin,

"Music was his language, the divine tongue through which he expressed a whole realm of sentiments that only the select few can appreciate ... The muse of his homeland dictates his songs, and the anguished cries of Poland lend to his art a mysterious, indefinable poetry which, for all those who have truly experienced it, cannot be compared to anything else ... The piano alone was not sufficient to reveal all that lies within him. In short he is a most remarkable individual who commands our highest degree of devotion."

Having been learning to play the piano on my own for several years, I feel much of the same sense of helplessness and ineptitude in approaching Chopin’s works now as I felt in my younger years of reading the works of Shakespeare. My experience and vocabulary on the instrument is far too limited to truly interpret his masterpieces. 

I imagine his work has the same effect on many players regardless of skill level. To approach his artistic height, one needs not only to have virtuosic chops, but also, a complete vocabulary, or else one can butcher the beauty by seeking to add drama to the already charged notes.

Chopin Portrait 2
Frederic Chopin

I have an experience of my own to share (not too proudly I might add), from my last piano class in college, one of several electives in an attempt to learn how to play better. My final was an excerpt of a transcription of a Chopin Etude, and some of my first attempts in playing the piece through were melodramatic. It is a common mistake of young artists to get caught up in ‘seeing themselves in roles’ rather than seeing the role itself. The only thing my playing communicated at first was “look at what I’m playing!” 

What my technical proficiency has yet to master, my heart has always understood. Chopin’s music has always been very dear to me even from my earliest childhood introductions to classical music. There has always been a kinship that I have felt toward his music, of course helped greatly by my love of the piano, specifically. His voice was very unique among composers, in its seamless blend of technique and lyricism.

My greatest appreciation of Chopin’s music comes from his melodies and his melodies within his melodies. So often, in his pieces the main melodies are augmented by staggeringly beautiful melodies underneath; one of my favorite examples can be found in Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor Op 31. Below is a great rendition by Krystian Zimerman.

March 1, 2010 marked the 200th anniversary of Frederic Chopin’s birth. He was so much more than just a pianist and his music was so much more than merely the piano. 

Here’s the best site I’ve found to date that is devoted to Chopin:  http://www.ourchopin.com, and here is one of my favorite Chopin pieces:

Garrick Ohlsson, the pianist in this video, was featured on Performance Today earlier this month, when he got the distinction of playing a piano recital in the very house that Chopin was born in, on a piano that Chopin had played in his lifetime. Ohlsson, who won the 1970 International Chopin Competition, can be seen touring around the world.

You can download Ohlsson's recital from Chopin's birthplace for free from Performance Today, and you can hear more from Garrick Ohlsson on NPR.

 

Aran Jenkins is a recent graduate of WV State University.  He plays piano and guitar, writes for the Charleston Gazette, and is working on a novel.

Previous posts by Aran Jenkins:

The Master Segovia
Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff
Finding Connections
B is for Beautiful? 
* The Passion of Julian Bream
* Ana Vidovic and Antonio Lauro
* Pianist Noboyuki Tsujii 

Sousa at the Symphony: Keith Brion interview

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By Mona Seghatoleslami
 · March 18, 2010

Fun facts about John Philip Sousa:

* This noted composer & and conductor of band music was a violin player who nearly ran away to join the circus

John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa

* Sousa conducted the first performances of several of Ottorini Respighi’s tone poems in the United States 

* He performed with his band in Charleston, West Virginia six different times! 

* His band had the top-selling records in America (second only to Enrico Caruso), but he testified to Congress against recording technology 


 

Keith Brion
Keith Brion

You can learn much more about Sousa from Keith Brion, conductor and Sousa expert. He’ll be leading the West Virginia Symphony in a program called “Sousa at the Symphony” this weekend. They will be recreating some of what Sousa’s concerts would have been like, with lots of short pieces including light classics, opera arias, and other music, along with marches by Sousa.   

Brion also shared some of these stories in a conversation we had this week. You can download it as a podcast or listen to the streaming audio below:

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Interview with Keith Brion

Irish Classics: John O’Conor (interview)

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By Mona Seghatoleslami
 · March 16, 2010
John O'Conor
John O'Conor

Pianist John O’Conor grew up in Dublin listening to traditional Irish music, but that's not what he was playing in his piano lessons.  Instead, he focused on music by Beethoven and other Classic and early Romantic composers.

He left Dublin to study in Vienna, where he won the Beethoven International Piano Competition in 1973. He has since performed and taught all over the world. He’s also recorded Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas and piano concertos for Telarc Records. 

Field Nocturnes

O’Conor has maintained his ties to Ireland and Irish music. He has moved back to Dublin, and in 1990, he convinced Telarc to let him record an album of nocturnes by Irish composer John Field, whose works influenced Chopin. That album was a hit -- it spent several weeks on Billboard classical charts and has introduced Field’s music to many new listeners.  

Irish Classics

O'Conor has now combined his classical piano experience with the traditional Irish music of his youth, in a new album called Irish Classics. The album features old Irish songs and dances arranged for piano and orchestra. Performing this lighter style of classical music is new territory for O’Conor, and he has taken to it quite well.
 
During my recent interview with O'Conor, we spoke about the Irish Classics album, changes in classical music in Ireland, his partnership with Shenandoah University in Virginia, traditional Irish music, John Field’s nocturnes, and the Chieftans – all in just under ten minutes! Take a listen; you can stream or podcast this interview:

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Interview with John O'Conor

Pipe organ 3: More assembly required

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By Carole Carter
 · March 16, 2010

February 22, they delivered the “baby” Casavant to First Presbyterian Church-Charleston.

Then the assembly commenced, but more was required.

By March, the organ is really beginning to take shape quickly.


Wood pipes
Wood pipes are installed on either side.

inside wiring
We see inside the organ as Robert undertakes the task of wiring for electro-pneumatic action.

console in gallery
The console is hauled up to the front gallery.

last pipes
Workmen from Wiseman Construction help install the 16' pipes on the sides of the case. When the scaffolding comes down, this is the view from the rear gallery.

last measurements
The outer casework pieces are measured on site to ensure the correct fit.

Robert among pipes
There are so many pipes and parts that there’s little room for Robert.

assembly complete
It’s an organ!

The magnificent Casavant pipe organ is ready for the "voicers" who are due to arrive today, Tuesday, March 16. Robert and Sasha gave the organ a rough tuning, but there are a few pipes left to install and the organ needs to be tuned to the room - a domed and vaulted sanctuary with its special acoustics.

This process doesn't lend itself to visuals, so I've got to see if I can secure some audio assistance for the next step in the process,

Part 1: Delivering the baby 

Part 2: Some assembly required 

Stravinsky: Once at a Border (review)

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By Jim Lange
 · March 15, 2010
Stravinsky DVD

Editor’s note: You may have noticed that Jim Lange has a new blog that is keeping him busy these days.  I’m only able to forgive him for spending less time in this corner of our site because of how much I like reading his posts on this new EclecTopia blog
 
Classical music is part of the wide (and wild) mix of music that Jim spins on EclecTopia, and his blog recently featured a review of a Stravinsky documentary.


“Anyone who appreciates Igor Stravinsky should watch Once at a Border - a DVD which is loaded with not only biographical, but personal insights into the man who launched the 20th century."

[… ]

"Many times during the film, I felt like I was seeing something so rare and incredible: Stravinsky walking about the room where he wrote the Rite of Spring or out in his garden at his Hollywood residence. Those seemed to me like having a film with Beethoven talking about his ninth symphony. Simply magic."

[…]

"Mrs. Vera Stravinsky makes an all-too-brief appearance near the end of the film, looking a bit sad and lost. Perhaps she declined to be interviewed extensively, but it makes me wonder why she wasn’t more a part of the film? Imagine the insights.”


For more insights, read the whole review here.

Pipe organ: Some assembly required

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By Carole Carter
 · March 11, 2010

In my first post , you saw some 1700 pipes and even more parts being unloaded from a semi into the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church-Charleston.


FPC sanctuary parts
Parts of the organ were strewn all over the sanctuary.

Robert Hiller & Sasha Achpemichuk from Casavant  have been busy little beavers  working 6-7 days a week to assemble our new organ in the front gallery.

The first obstacle: get a bigger winch. The original would not handle the weight of the console or some of the pipes. A company in Kentucky answered our call.

Since this tale is most effectively told in pictures, here’s the progression of pix I took every 2-3 days during the assembly process:


organ framework
First, they put together the framework, the inner footprint.of the organ.

scaffolding from rr
The framework kept getting taller as you can see in this view of the scaffolding from the rear gallery.

organ louvers installed
Robert oversees installing the louvers as Sasha climbs the scaffolding.

louvers plus grillwork
The louvers are installed & the grill work added to the front.

Next installment: More assembly required

Part 1 - Pipe organ: Delivering the baby 

Meet the Composer: John Beall

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By Mona Seghatoleslami
 · March 10, 2010
Wondrous Love album

Professor John Beall is the composer-in-residence and teaches music composition at West Virginia University, and his music has been performed by orchestras and chamber ensembles all over the country. 

You can read his bio, including major compositions, performances, and awards on WVU’s Web site

As informative as that is, I think it's so much nicer to hear him tell his own story and offer a more personal perspective. 

Dr. John Beall
Dr. John Beall

Listen to Dr. Beall describe his musical background, what inspired him, and the path he followed to becoming a composer:

This audio player requires Adobe Flash
Interview with Dr. John Beall, Part 1

We’ve featured several of Dr. Beall’s recordings on WV Public Radio, including his Vandalia Suite for piano, the Double Concerto for Violin and Contrabass, and Variations on Wondrous Love for viola and piano. Listen to the rest of the interview below, where Beall discusses several of his pieces and his approach to the music:

This audio player requires Adobe Flash
Interview with Dr. John Beall, Part 2

Previously, we’ve featured interviews with two composers that studied with Dr. Beall. Check them out: 

* Meet the Composer: David Williams
* Meet the Composer: Timothy Cooper

From Idea to Opera Part V: New York Recital

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By Evan Mack
 · March 8, 2010
Evan Mack, Composer & Pianist
Evan Mack at the piano
What does it take to create an opera and get it on stage?  Evan Mack is a composer and pianist living in Charleston, WV, who was interviewed on Classically Speaking in May 2009.  He is currently in the process of having his opera Angel of the Amazon produced, and he will be writing here about the experience, from his first inspiration through the opera being staged. You can catch up here: Part One  Part Two  Part Three Part Four.

I found Encompass New Opera Theatre in Brooklyn, New York, an organization that has been developing American opera for the last 35 years. I submitted my listening companion and CD for Angel of Amazon to them. They really enjoyed the opera and chose it for development and production in 2010.

So, on February 28th I was invited to Gramercy Park in NYC for Encompass’ Season Kick-Off event. Artistic director Nancy Rhodes invited patrons of the arts, members from the Catholic community, and people from rainforest coalitions to get a preview of Angel of the Amazon.

The program consisted of me performing some piano music by American composers, a few arias from other American operas, a guest speech from Sr. Dorothy Stang’s biographer, and three arias from Angel of the Amazon.


Angel of the Amazon Encompass 3
Nancy Rhodes, Artistic Director of Encompass New Opera Theater

The venue was this large, castle-like home of a Hungarian art dealer. Portraits and works of art filled every inch of the walls. The crowd was huge.

All of the excerpts were well-received by the crowd and many were willing to donate and spread the word to get more seed money. They were even more excited to realize that the opera was completed and simply needs backing to get it off the ground.


Evan Mack at Encompass 2
Evan Mack discusses Angel of the Amazon with the audience

The next steps for production: more seed money, a full in-concert reading, and then a full staging in New York. Once the opera is produced, the goal is to get enough funds to take the opera to cities across the country.

I will keep you all posted as things unfold in real time. Stay tuned for April, when another group performs the opera in San Francisco.

You can find out more about the opera's progress and get involved by following Angel of the Amazon on Facebook and by checking out the Web sites for Encompass New Opera Theatre and Angel of the Amazon
 
Here are some more pictures from the performance in New York:


Angel of the Amazon Encompass 4
Michele Murdock (Dorothy Stang biographer) and Nancy Rhodes of Encompass New Opera Theater

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Angel of the Amazon Encompass 5
Erin Greene singing as Sister Dorothy

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WV Composers -- Take Note!

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By Mona Seghatoleslami
 · March 5, 2010
WV Culture and History


The National Symphony Orchestra and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in association with the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, announce the commissioning of a chamber work by a resident West Virginia composer.

A resident West Virginia composer will be commissioned to write a work of approximately 10-15 minutes duration for chamber forces.

The commission award is $5,000 + travel expenses associated with the premiere. Music copying, commissioning fees, and composer’s travel expenses are included in this amount.

Submissions must be made to the Appalachian Education Initiative which is serving as the state coordinator, and include all elements listed under Submission Requirements, below.

A panel convened by the West Virginia Division of Culture & History and the Appalachian Education Initiative will narrow the applications to three finalists.

A National Symphony Orchestra jury — overseen by Principal Conductor Iván Fischer — will make the final selection of a West Virginia composer for this commission.

The deadline is March 13.  The application, with additional information on submissions, will be available online soon at www.aeiarts.org.  You can also download the application here.


The National Symphony Orchestra will be performing, teaching, and leading workshops throughout West Virginia in April.  We'll have more information and stories about their visit here on Classically Speaking over the next two months.

WV Symphony 2010-2011 Season

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By Mona Seghatoleslami
 · March 4, 2010
WVSO Mini Logo

The West Virginia Symphony has just announced their next season. It includes Mark O'Connor (interview), Valentina Lisitsa, David Kim (interview), Carter Brey, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, Beethoven 6, Brahms 4, Carnival of the Animals, a bit of Broadway, and even some ABBA. 

Plus, they're talking about going to Carnegie Hall (not this fine hall, the one in New York) during the 2013-14 season. 

You can listen online to the radio story that was broadcast on WV Morning.  You can also find more details on the WV Symphony site, and if you want to hear the whole story, here's the (very) raw audio of Wednesday afternoon's press conference to stream or podcast.

This audio player requires Adobe Flash
WV Symphony 2010-11 Season Announcement Press Conference

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My Performance Today: Chopin Edition

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By Mona Seghatoleslami
 · March 2, 2010

Chopin Picture
Frederic Chopin in 1849

All this month, radio program Performance Today (heard weekdays on WV Public Radio, 9-11am) is celebrating Chopin’s 200th birthday, and you are invited to be part of the celebration. 

Record yourself, your friends and family, or your group's version of a copyright-free or public-domain Chopin piece. Then share your audio or video with Performance Today for others to see and hear on their Web site (you can check out the ones that have already been posted, by a music student and a choir accompanist).

Do you have some old Chopin music sitting in the piano bench that you’ve been meaning to dust off one of these days?  Now is the time!

Music students, church pianists, choir accompanists, piano teachers, amateurs and professionals, young and old, here is your chance to join together with others around the world who love Chopin’s music.

I’d really like to see and hear some West Virginians represented in this Chopin celebration.  If you submit a video to them, be sure to let me know (in the comments or by emailing feedback@wvpubcast.org)

I wonder if they’ll take submissions of arrangements. Are there any brass quintets, string quartets, or even rock bands out there playing new versions of Chopin?

Find more details, including technical information, at My Performance Today.

Even if you don't play music by Chopin, I'd love to also hear your Chopin stories -- favorite pieces, memories of listening, or what you like (or don't) about his music.  Leave a comment below!

WV Classical Calendar -- March 2010

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By Mona Seghatoleslami
 · March 1, 2010
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