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Classically Speaking

Classical music in West Virginia and Beyond

A Bridge Between Two Worlds

(Interviews) Permanent link
“I’m like a bridge between the different cultures.”

Music is always a bridge between cultures. It’s a friendly ambassador speaking volumes about a culture long before a foot is placed on foreign soil. A country’s music will not only tell you much about the sociopolitical environment, but acts as a true reflection of the soul of a nation. Listen to the music and you will hear the heart of the people.

Guitarist Xuefei Yang is an ambassador; both for her native country of China and for the Western culture she brings home. Born in Beijing in 1977, she got her first guitar at age 7 - a gift from her father. She started attending Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music at age 13. Soon after that, she was giving public recitals; impressing the likes of composer Joaquin Rodrigo and guitar luminary John Williams. Her education abroad began with a full scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London. She was the first guitarist from China to study in the UK and the first guitarist ever to receive an international scholarship.

I spoke to Xuefei, pronounced shoo-fay, or as she prefers, “Fei,” about her discovery of the guitar and early education in China.

Listen to the first part of our interview

She was 23 when arrived in London to study at the Royal Conservatory. I had to wonder how it felt to receive all these special “firsts” and about culture shock. Fei answers with typical sincerity and humility.

Listen to Fei talk about her experiences going west

The Butterfly Lovers Concerto is a piece you have heard on WVPR before. On her new album, 40 Degrees North, Fei has recorded her transcription of the first movement of this popular Chinese piece.

Listening to Fei talk about the Butterfly Lovers Concerto


Sometimes seemingly disparate things can have some unseen connections as she explains the title of her album. Also, she chose to have a Western composer, Steven Goss, to write some pieces that reflect Chinese culture as well her own musical taste.

Listen the final part of my interview with Fei


To find out more about XueFei Yang you can read about her on Wikipedia, visit her official website, learn about her revolutionary instrument.  And of course, listen for her CD on Classical Music on WV Public Radio.

Batman at the Opera

(Commentary, Just for Fun) Permanent link
This weekend, I saw the newest Batman movie, The Dark Knight. Pretty amazing stuff.  This morning, I thought back to part of the previous installment, Batman Begins, which has a connection to our classical music discussions here.

A key event in young Bruce Wayne’s life leads to him becoming the vigilante hero Batman.  As a boy, his parents are murdered in front of him.  The murder is most often depicted as happening outside of a theater.  In several versions, Bruce Wayne goes to the movies with his parents.   The movie he sees—The Mask of Zorro—influences the imagery he adopts as Batman, a masked crusader.

For Batman Begins, they chose to have the young Bruce Wayne and his parents attend an opera, instead of a movie.  

What opera did the boy who would become Batman see that night?

Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus [The Bat] would match in name, but as a comic opera, it would be a bit light-hearted for the genesis of such a dark and dramatic character. (click here to listen to a brief sample)

Instead, they used a scene from Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele (click here for a brief sample, or you can hear the whole opera online through NPR Music).  The Faust/Mephistopheles story is a common in opera and other art forms, but Boito’s opera is pretty obscure.  Boito’s music is less often heard than his words; his main claim to fame is writing the librettos for Verdi’s Faust and Otello, along with several other operas.  But the idea of a Faustian bargain, along with the themes of pride and defiance, resonates with Batman’s tale.  

This opera is only in the movie for a few brief moments.  But it leads me to think—could Batman, whose story has been told in comics, movies, books, and TV shows, be the subject of an opera?

Recently, stories that are known as movies are making their way on to opera stages, including The Fly and Brokeback Mountain (the story, not the movie is the point of the departure for that one, but can the movie be ignored?)

Could some opera singer find himself taking the stage in Batman’s mask and cape? Since Batman’s a conflicted hero, I’d cast him as a baritone. Any other thoughts on what Batman’s operatic debut would look and sound like?

Bonus: Parts of The Dark Knight were filmed in Chicago—anyone see the banner for the Lyric Opera during the car chase scene?

Giving Quartet San Francisco a Whirl

(Interviews, CD Reviews) Permanent link

Whirled Chamber MusicHave you heard Quartet San Francisco’s CD Whirled Chamber Music? Quartet San Francisco (QSF) has been on Performance Today, our own Classical Music program, and Eclectopia.  I love this CD; it’s sounds bright and fresh, and every time I play it, the music just makes me happy.

Here’s a brief intro to what they sound like.  Listen to them play a Disney tune, music by Leonard Bernstein, and the funk hit Pick Up the Pieces.

Quartet San FranciscoIt’s not strictly classical…or just jazz….or really any one thing.  It’s labeled crossover (that’s the category in which they got their Grammy nominations), which means that it encompasses more than one musical genre.  Some crossover albums or groups can be frustrating in how they are “jacks of all trades, but masters of none.”  But the Quartet San Francisco gets it right; I never feel like the music is diluted in any way.

As you can probably tell, I’ve become an instant fan of this group and their music.  So when I heard that violinist Jeremy Cohen, a member of the quartet, was available for an interview, I gave him a call right away.  Then I wasn’t sure how to edit the interview, and I put off posting it for about a month!  Finally, without further adieu, here’s some of our conversation:

Listen to Cohen describe the origins of QSF and Whirled Chamber Music

The CD includes seven pieces by composer Raymond Scott.  You’ll probably know his music, even if you don’t know the name, because his tunes were often used in cartoons.  See if either of these samples is familiar: Powerhouse and The Toy Trumpet.  That’s how they were played by Scott and his band.  Here’s QSF’s interpretation of Powerhouse and The Toy Trumpet.  

Listen to Jeremy Cohen talk about Raymond Scott and his music

Finally, we talked about this eclectic group’s future musical plans.

Listen to Jeremy Cohen talk about QSF’s upcoming projects


This is one of the longest interviews I’ve posted, and that’s even after I've left parts of it out.  How are these interview posts working out for you? Should they be longer or shorter? Do you like how they’re separated into sections or do you prefer them to be available as one sound file?  Let me know in the comments, and we still want to hear which musicians you'd like us to interview in the future.

Special thanks to Max Horowitz of Crossover Media for arranging this interview.

Friday Question: Who would you like us to interview?

(Commentary, Just for Fun) Permanent link
Who do you want to hear from?

So far, on Classically Speaking we’ve had interviews with Gil Shaham, Andre Raphel Smith (Wheeling Symphony), Grant Cooper (WV Symphony), Ryan Hardiman (WV Symphony Idol), and Chuck Daellenbach of the Canadian Brass.

Next week, I’m talking to violinist and composer Patmore Lewis, because I like his unusual Rillito River Project CD and want to ask him about it, and I have an interview with Jeremy Cohen of Quartet San Francisco that we will be posting soon.  We’re also starting to contact musicians who will be performing around the state over the next year.

So...who would you like me to interview?

They can be connected to West Virginia, or just a performer or composer you've heard, or want to hear, on West Virginia Public Radio.

You never know who will talk to you until you ask.  I can’t promise that I will get every interview, but I will certainly try.  And I’ve found that most classical musicians are happy to share some of their time and thoughts.

I’ll have some follow-up on last week’s Friday question about listening soon, but there’s no time today, since I have to head out to the dentist!

Lighten up!

(CD Reviews) Permanent link
Musical typewriters, clarinet candy, waltzing cats, whistling kettles, and the world’s most famous sleigh ride. These pieces are just a few examples of Leroy Anderson’s brilliantly light-hearted music.

2008 is the centenary of Leroy Anderson’s birth (he lived from 1908 to 1975), and during this year Naxos Records is issuing a complete series of Anderson’s music, performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.  

I've had a good time listening to these CDs and playing them on the radio.  The sound effects (like typewriters and clocks) are fun, but it’s the wonderful melodies and his inventive use of the regular orchestral instruments that make his pieces more than a collection of parlor tricks.  And if some of these pieces are too silly for you, check out his Piano Concerto or Harvard Sketches.

Reading a bit about Anderson, I thought it was neat that he played such an unusual assortment of instruments: double bass, trombone, piano, percussion, and organ.  At Harvard, he studied Germanic and Scandinavian languages, while also playing in the marching band.  He then worked as the arranger and composer for the Boston Pops Orchestra with Arthur Fiedler, interrupted for a stint in the Scandinavian Intelligence Division for the US Government during World War II.  

Along with Anderson, we've been playing a few other engaging “light” music composers, including Arthur Ketèlbey, Edmond Dédé, and Raymond Scott. And to think, Saint-Saëns forbade the publishing of his “Carnival of the Animals” until after his death to avoid being known as a composer of light music! It doesn’t seem to have been such bad company after all.

Do you have any favorite pieces by Leroy Anderson? Special memories of hearing or playing his music?  (I played Sleigh Ride for years in various school orchestras and bands, and I’m happy to finally hear some of his other pieces!)

For more about Anderson, you can also check out this All Things Considered story that ran on his birthday in June.

Giant Hammers and Opera Corpses

(Just for Fun) Permanent link
One reader brought up Gustav Mahler as one of her favorite composers, and she mentioned an unusual percussion instrument—the giant hammer that's used to strike the blows of fate at the end of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. (Check out this video of the hammer in action.  And that’s only one of many to be found online)

Joel Stein recently wrote of his appreciation for the Mahler hammer as part of his humorous article “How to be a Classic Snob," the hammer doesn't show up until the end, but the whole article is pretty funny.

Not related to Mahler, but another funny piece on a classical music experience: Dave Barry writes about playing the corpse in Puccini's opera Gianni Schichi (probably best known for giving us the aria “O mio babbino caro”) in “My Night at the Opera”

Do these articles cast a negative light on classical music and its audiences?  Stein is making fun of snobbery and elitism associated with listening to classical music, but he also shows how easy it is to get engaged with listening to classical music and the approachability of the symphony musician who shares advice on music with him.

Maybe I’m thinking about this too much.  Anyway, hope you have fun with these articles, and be sure to let me know what you think in the comments below.

Friday Question: What do you do while listening to classical music?

(Just for Fun) Permanent link

Some listen to classical music while painting.  Others have the radio on in the background at work.  I’ve also talked to people who listen to classical radio programs while on the treadmill.

At concerts, we all sit and listen and watch the performers, but listening to recordings or the radio is often an accompaniment to other parts of our life.

As for me, I spend Saturday afternoons listening to the opera while washing dishes and catching up on housework.  Of course, I also listen at work, but since it’s my (happy) duty to be listening to the radio.  And like many others, the radio in our car is constantly tuned to West Virginia Public Radio.  But Saturdays at home with the opera are some of my favorite times.  If I get the housework done (what a wonderful feeling!), I just sit and relax, listening to the rest of the opera, and maybe reading a few pages of a book.

So, how about you?  What do you like to do while listening to classical music?

Canadian Brass: Legends in their own time

(Interviews) Permanent link
You don’t have to be Canadian to become part of the Canadian Brass.

That’s one of the things I learned while chatting with tuba player and Canadian Brass founding member Chuck Daellenbach. He’s originally from Wisconsin, but as a new professor at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, he teamed up with other brass musicians in the city, and the Canadian Brass was born.

Their new CD is called “Legends” and rightly so.  Between touring, recording, arranging and commissioning music for brass, the Canadian Brass have defined the modern brass quintet (and double quintet).  You’ve certainly heard their recordings on the radio over the years, and music from this new CD has been featured on West Virginia Public Radio over the past few weeks, including Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria, music by William Byrd, and the Beatles’ Penny Lane. (the links give you brief samples of each piece).

We started out chatting about the group's history and their legendary status:

Listen to Chuck Daellenbach talk about the Canadian Brass and their new CD

Our conversation then turned to the music—favorite selections, the variety of music for brass quintet, and the important, but sometimes overlooked, role of the tuba:

Listen to Chuck Daellenbach talk about music played by the Canadian Brass

Future plans include a European tour, managing their new record label “Opening Day,” and continuing to play and teach music around the world.

Do you have a favorite recording by the Canadian Brass?  Let us know in the comments below, and keep your ears open for selections from “Legends” on Classical Music with Jim Lange.

Special thanks to Max Horowitz of Crossover Media for arranging this interview.

New kids on the (blogging) block

(News) Permanent link
West Virginia is now home not only to one, but two classical music weblogs!  The West Virginia Symphony has started its own 'blog, with a wonderful group of contributors from the WV Symphony staff.

Their posts have so far included writing about the adventures of freelance musicians, music lessons with an audience, and the demise of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.  I look forward to reading all their posts--I hope they can also include some perspectives from players in the orchestra.

Maybe it's not fair for me to call them the "new kids"--we haven't been doing this for too long either, but we're glad to have such good company as we share stories and music online.

Check out the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra Blog, and be sure to let me know if you hear of any other classical music blogs in and around West Virginia.

Favorite Composer followup

(Commentary) Permanent link
Well, the week is almost over, and I promised to post my favorite composer.  I have many favorite pieces and composers, which makes it difficult to decide. I have chosen the composer who wrote many pieces I'd put on my list of favorites...he is also the composer that wrote one of my least favorite pieces of all time.  

Ludwig van Beethoven.  Almost every time I hear or play one of his pieces, I am inspired and I hear something new.  He surprises with his harmonies, plays with rhythms, and has turned obsessive repetition into something transcendent.

I love playing and hearing his symphonies (especially the 7th...and the 3rd...and...basically, all of them).

For the piano, his piano sonatas from early through late are beautiful and engaging in all different ways, and there's the Piano Concerto No. 5 "The Emperor"...especially the moment before the third movement where there is a brief slow quotation of the music to come. I do need to become more familiar with the others.

As a string player, his quartets are also especially dear to me--from the early Op. 18 set, to my favorite Op. 95 "Serioso" in F Minor, to the complex interwoven lines of his last works.

But Beethoven has also written one of my least favorite pieces: The Consecration of the House Overture.  It's boring and uninspired, and I had to play it way too many times when my alma mater was dedicating a new concert hall.  I'll forgive him this one indiscretion, but don't expect to hear that Beethoven piece on any of my programs! (Especially when I have the choice of his other wonderful overtures--all of the Leonore/Fidelo ones, Corolian, and Egmont).

Other favorite pieces of mine include Bach's Cello Suites, Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, Britten's Peter Grimes, Berlioz's Harold in Italy, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and Eugene Onegin, Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, Haydn's Symphony No. 82 ("The Bear"), Ruth Crawford Seeger's String Quartet, Mozart's Don Giovanni, and for contemporary favorites Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs and Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre.  And I need to make myself stop adding things to this list, because we could be here a while...but for overall body of work by one composer, Beethoven is my guy.

I'd still love to hear about your favorite composer, so create an account over on the side of the page, and leave me a note.  As for me, I think I need to go home and re-read some of Maynard Solomon's Beethoven biography before the fireworks.

We'll have a new Friday question next week, but for now, have a happy Fourth of July!

July 4 in WV: Fireworks, Orchestras, and more!

(Interviews, News) Permanent link
Across the state, there are some fun Fourth of July weekend concerts going on this weekend.  Here's a brief tour:

In Huntington, The Huntington Symphony has one of their three summer “Picnics with the Pops” on July 4th.  They’re playing outside at Harris Riverfront Park.  The program is called “Red, White, and Bluegrass,” and there will be fireworks.

In Charleston, the West Virginia Symphony will be performing at Haddad Riverfront Park on the Kanawha River, where there will also be fireworks.  Their program includes patriotic and festive favorites like The Star Spangled Banner and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, with the added bonus of featuring singing by Ryan Hardiman, the WV Symphony Idol.

Listen to Hardiman talk about the process of becoming the WV Symphony Idol


Listen to Hardiman discuss the songs he's singing on the July 4th concert

Listen to Hardiman describe some dream roles and future plans

Now the Wheeling Symphony is teaming up with the Mountain Stage band and taking their show on the road.  They'll be performing in Wheeling on July 4th, at Wheeling's Heritage Port.  The surrounding dates will find them in Clarksburg, Canaan State Park, and Weirton.  For his fourth Fourth of July concert with the Wheeling Symphony, Music Director Andre Raphel Smith is looking forward to the show:

Listen to Smith talk about working with the Mountain Stage Band

Listen to Smith describe his favorite pieces on the program

One of Smith's favorite pieces on the program is Morton Gould's American Salute: Hear an excerpt from Gould's American Salute.

I wish I could go to all of these concerts, but I can only be in one place at a time!  I'll be out enjoying fireworks and music on the river in Charleston.  Are you going to a Fourth of July concert this weekend? I'd love to hear about it--you can share your story by leaving a comment below.  And of course, on Classical Music here on West Virginia Public Radio, we'll have plenty of good music for the Fourth.

Karaoke...Opera?

(Just for Fun) Permanent link
Karaoke is no longer confined to singing Dolly Parton or Barry Manilow out at the bars.  Now, thanks to music label Musical Concepts you can sing opera arias accompanied by a full orchestra in your living room.

They could either make for a very fun (or very painful) party. And, they might actually be useful for voice students for practicing.  I know that something similar is done mostly for instrumentalists by Music Minus One, but I'd never thought of the social possibilities.

There are three volumes:
and for those who like the lighter side of opera...
They also boast of having English and original versions of the texts, synopses and plot backgrounds to help you get into character, and the ability to switch between the full recording and karaoke accompaniment.

Anyone out there own any of these DVDs?  Do singers use them to practice?  Have you held opera karaoke parties?  Would you?

I know that they are on order at the Kanawha County Public Library, so I might just have to check them out soon.
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