Helen Keller, Beethoven Fan?

HelenKellerRadioAstonishing post in the San Francisco Classical Voice about a 1924 letter that blind, deaf, and mute Helen Keller wrote to the New York Symphony (the rival of the New York Philharmonic before they eventually merged in 1928), recounting the experience of tuning in to a  broadcast of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the radio:

Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm.


What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibration, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roil of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voices leaped up thrilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still.


Really? Congrats to San Francisco Classical Voice Writer Janos Gereben for this bit of sleuthing – the letter was apparently in the Helen Keller Archives of the American Federation of the Blind.  But I’m rather surprised that this story has never come up before – and the skeptic in me wonders is Ms. Keller did not indulge in a bit of a creative flight of fancy.  I don’t tend to think of a 1920s-era radio as capable of “surround sound,” but it sure is fascinating notion to imagine that someone who was doubtless as hypersensitive to vibrations as Helen Keller could actually pick out and detect a symphony that way.   Can anyone corroborate this?

Miscellaeneous Musings: the NY Phil, Howard Theatre, WYPR, No Depression, Pete Seeger…

Any resemblance to Mike “I Was Just Thinking….” Barnicle is purely coincidental….

  • Kind of amazing to hear the wall-to-wall media coverage of the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea….startling and gratifying to hear snippets of the New World Symphony in the middle of network newscasts. Worth reading:  Anne Midgette’s column in the WaPo on this not being a case of bringing Great. Western. Art. to poor benighted souls behind the Bamboo Curtain….

But in Vienna, Austria, there is another image of them: as conducting students. The elite conducting class at the University of Music and Performing Arts there has trained no fewer than 17 North Korean students in the past decade.

  • Which reminds me of a similar history-making venture I helped to orchestra for NPR in 1999: The Milwaukee Symphony’s trip to Cuba, which was the first time a US orchestra had performed on the island since the Philadelphia Orchestra had been there in 1959.  ‘Course, it was a little easier for our NPR crew to move around the country than it was for the delegation traveling to North Korea this week…I remember that producer Laura Bertran even managed to lend some technical and logistical help to the struggling public radio station in Havana to broadcast the concert live on the island. (Oh yeah, they played Gershwin, too….the Cuban Overture, natch)  Click here to hear some of the music from similar symphonic excursions in the past,  and here for a similar Washington Post story on other “Diplomacy Concerts” of that past half-century.
  • On the other hand, for the same station to air during afternoon drive a six-month-old repeat of a Mario Armstrong “Digital Cafe”  feature?  About an Internet startup being Beta tested?   With a casual disclaimer that “some information may be out of date?”  Incredibly. Lame.
  • Pete SeegerIt’s nice to see Pete Seeger getting his props from PBS this week, with an American Masters portrait airing tonight on most PBS stations around the country. Except, that is, in DC, where despite Pete being on the cover of the Post’s TV Week,  the local pubtv powerhouse WETA inexplicably is running a show a three-year old show on Judy Garland.    Huh?   I’ll have more to say on Pete in a later post.

Hockey Night in…..Symphony Hall?

hockeymusic.gifLooking out at the snow and ice on a twenty-degree day, a story from yesterday’s Toronto Globe & Mail to warm the cockles o’my ice-skating heart: news of a Hockey Symphony…

Wednesday night, trail-blazing Montreal maestro Kent Nagano will lift his baton to conduct what is perhaps the world’s first symphonic ode to hockey. Meant to transport Montrealers back to the glory days of the Canadiens and the Montreal Forum, the Hockey Legends concert features an original score, Les Glorieux, punctuated by organ music, a jarring period buzz or two and some spoken-word performances by none other than hockey stars Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Guy Lafleur and Henri (Pocket Rocket) Richard. Nagano commissioned Quebec composer François Dompierre and writer Georges-Hébert Germain to create the piece, which will be performed by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal at Places des Arts concert hall….

Now, there have been a fair amount of baseball-themed symphonic pieces (including Robert Russell Bennett’s “Dodger Symphony,” with a cameo at the premiere by Red Barber himself), but this is the first I’ve heard of an ode to hockey in the concert hall. California native Nagano explained that it all came about as part of his ongoing effort to Get To Know His New Country:

Nagano began to immerse himself in hockey culture shortly after arriving to head the OSM in September, 2006, studying televised games and reading the biographies of legendary National Hockey League greats. But the conductor didn’t really get Canada’s hockey addiction until he attended his first live game: “It was so exciting to be in a jam-packed arena,” Nagano recalls. “I was impressed by the ferocity of the crowd’s emotions. There was such a personal investment and identification with the players. And the mood can change very, very quickly.”

Seems Nagano’s idea hit a responsive chord with the home-town crowd…Not only did they sell all 3,000 seats to the concert; the demand was so great that they also opened up the dress rehearsal to the public. The rest of the program? First Period: Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben ( A Hero’s Life) Second Period: Erik Satie’s Sports et divertissements ( Sports and Entertainment). Third Period: Dompierre’s Les Glorieux. No word on whether the Zamboni came out between pieces at the Place des Arts….

PS. Maybe there’s not a lot of symphonic music devoted to hockey, but there’s an entire site (Canadian, natch) devoted to music for hockey games….

Concert Previews for Winter/Spring 2008

kencen.jpegSome of the most fun I have is doing a number of Concert Preview conversations for the subscribers to the Washington Performing Arts Society and other performing-arts organizations in the D.C. area. Here’s what I’ve got on tap so far for the Winter/Spring of 2008:

Sunday, February 3, 3:00 pm Kennedy Center Concert Hall

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Mariss Jansons, chief conductor

Truly one of the world’s great orchestras, with a powerhouse program to boot: Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

R. Strauss: Don Juan

Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Friday, February 8, 8:00 pm The Music Center at Strathmore

Orli Shaham, piano & Gil Shaham, violin

A concert I’m especially looking forward to…the siblings Shaham are engaging, energetic, and deeply musical. Two of the finest folks in classical music, IMHO.

Mozart: Sonata in D Major, K. 306

Fauré: Two Movements from Pelléas et Melisande

Szymanoski: Mythes, Op. 30

Bartók: Rhapsody No. 2

Prokofiev: Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 94a

Monday, February 25, 8:00 pm Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Sir James Galway, flute

Lady Jeanne Galway, flute

Pianist & Program to be announced

Sir James Galway is certifiably in the Living Legend category…

Monday, March 3, 8:00 pm Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Joshua Bell, violin

Jeremy Denk, piano

Program TBA. Bell, like Galway, doesn’t need much introduction at this point. Jeremy Denk was one of our former Young Artists in Residence at NPR and his Think Denk blog is one of the most entertaining (and downright fascinating!) blogs in the business…

Tuesday, March 11, 8:00 pm Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Lang Lang, piano

The global phenomenon known as Lang Lang hits the KC stage….

Tuesday, April 1, 8:00 pm The Music Center at Strathmore

Swedish Chamber Orchestra

Piotr Anderszewski, piano

Another concert date that’s circled on the RoeDeo household calendar. Terrific 38-member ensemble with a “Gilmore Artist” – the equivalent of a “genius grant” for extraordinary pianists courtesy of the Irving S. Gilmore Festival & Foundation in Kalamazoo, MI.

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture,

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1

Schumann: Symphony No. 2

Sunday, April 6, 7:00 pm Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is a “scintillating and superb technician who possesses arm-blurring speed and power” (The New York Times).

Prokofiev : Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op.14

Chopin: Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58

Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42

Scriabin: Etude in F-sharp minor, Op. 8 No. 2

Etude in B minor, Op. 8 No. 3

Poeme in F-sharp Major, Op. 32 No. 1

Sonata No. 5, Op. 53

Wednesday, April 16, 8:00 pm The Music Center at Strathmore

Emerson String Quartet

Wu Han, piano

D.C. favorites for three decades now, the Emerson String Quartet has won eight Grammy Awards including two for Best Classical Album, a rare feat for a chamber music group. Wu Han (wife of cellist David Finckel) joins the quartet to play the Schumann Piano Quintet.

Schubert: String Quartet in A minor, D. 804 “Rosamunde”

Janacek: String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters”

Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44

Monday, April 28, 8:00 pm Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Orchestre National de France

Kurt Masur, music director

David Fray, piano

After a 17-year hiatus, the Orchestre National de France returns to D.C. under the leadership of Maestro Kurt Masur, former Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Pianist David Fray joins the orchestra as soloist in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7

Sunday, May 4, 4:00 pm The Music Center at Strathmore

Itzhak Perlman, violin

Rohan DeSilva, piano

Perlman and DeSilva are back to play at the concert hall they helped to inaugurate.

Fall 2007 concert previews are listed here.

Cleveland Rocks!

Disclaimer: This is posted by a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation, now smarting over a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS…

Monday was a good night for Cleveland at the Jake and at the Ken Cen, where yours truly got the chance to see the fabled Cleveland Orchestra up close and personal. Not that they’ve been strangers here…their press dept. helpfully pointed out that the orchestra has played 57 times in DC, including 43 times in the Kennedy Center’s 36-year history.

And they are still as good as advertised: In his excellent NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music my old friend Ted Libbey writes: “The Cleveland Orchestra is very nearly in a league of its own, a crack ensemble with an esprit de corps matched by only a handful of orchestras in the world. Its recordings are the discographic gold standard. ” Hard to argue with that assessment, on disc or in person. Monday night the orchestra had plenty of virtuosity on display, to go with usual crack ensemble playing and spot-on intonation. And, unusually, pride of place to the viola section, who were seated opposite the first violins, with the cellos and second violins filling in the middle around conductor Franz Welser-Most.

On the program: Mozart’s Symphony No. 28. Not a symphony you hear all that much, but with some absolutely propulsive outer movements with some feverish fiddling. You want a “discographic gold standard?” The October ’65 recording made by George Szell and the Clevelanders (reissued on CD in 2006) is still amazing. Clarity, balance, and speed – with no sacrifice in precision. When critics talk about Szell’s ability with Mozart as “chamber music for symphony orchestra,” they’re talking about recordings like this.

But the Mozart was merely a warm-up for what came next: The Guide to Strange Places by John Adams. I’ve blogged about Adams before and doubtless will again, and while I didn’t love everything about the piece (at 24 mins I think it’s about five minutes too long), it’s pretty damn cool, with cascading blocks of sound moving through, over, and around the orchestra. Or, in the words of the New York Times: “a jarringly turbulent piece, channeling its energy into shifts of clashing colors, both visual and emotive.” And a visual treat to watch the internal ballet of the stand-sharers in the violin section turning the pages for their stand partners as carefully-
and quickly- as they would for any virtuoso pianist.

But what really grabbed me was not so much a “Strange Place” but a location thoroughly familiar to us hardy Harpers Ferry residents. Adams’ inventive scoring includes a Doppler-effect freight-train rumbling through the brass and percussion sections….a sound I hear routinely as long freighters go rumbling into the night through the Harpers Ferry Gap.

Adams absolutely nailed the sound. Despite the fact that nearly everything Adams has written is available on CD, you can only hear this snippet of the Guide on Adam’s extremely well-done website.

Strange but true footnote: This piece represents a connection between the Pulitzer Prize- winning composer and the 2nd president of the US beside the fact that both were born in Massachusetts: The “Guide to Strange Places” was commissioned and first performed by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic at the Concertgebouw. And before he succeeded George Washington, the “other” John Adams was the first US ambassador to the Netherlands, where his efforts at diplomacy are seen as so significant that he recently merited a three-part series on Radio Netherlands called Adams in Amsterdam. And then I found out there’s a John Adams Institute in Amsterdam…an independent, nonprofit foundation dedicated to furthering a longstanding tradition: cultural exchange between the USA and the Netherlands. Founded in 1987, the John Adams Institute continues to expose the best and brightest American writers and thinkers to audiences in The Netherlands.

Back to the concert…the Clevelanders closed out with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony (No. 6) that was everything as advertised. Ted Libbey again:

It is still fashionable for critics to dismiss Tchaikovsky as one of two things: a superficial manipulator or a self-absorbed boderline hysteric wallowing in his own emotions. He was neither…He managed to create worlds of feeling in his symphonies. Tchaikovsky biographer David Brown calls the Pathetique “The most truly original symphony to be composed in the 70 years since Beethoven’s 9th.”

As the first truly tragic symphony, concerned with loss, isolation, and despair, it projects a negative image of Beethoven’s triumphant aspiration, in place of spiritual transcendence, it seeks annihilation. This marks a fundamental turning point in the history of the symphony. Psychologically, the Pathetique symphony marks the beginning of modernism.
The Clevelanders did not disappoint. And the Kennedy Center audience behaved…no applause at the end of the third movement, to my surprise.

Lots of applause at the end, and no encore either. Now they’re off to Carnegie Hall and the Musikverein. And I’ll have more on Adams in a bit.

Postscript: The Washington Post review of this concert can be found here. Don’t know how the reviewer got the impression was a U.S. Premiere, however, since DC’s own National Symphony Orchestra played it on their East Coast Tour three years ago.

Concert Previews: Fall 2007

Here’s a look at some of the Concert Previews (e.g., pre-concert lectures) I’ll be giving for subscribers to the concert season of the Washington Performing Arts Society:
Wednesday, October 10, 8:00 pm The Music Center at Strathmore
La Scala PhilharmonicRiccardo Chailly, conductorThe long-awaited D.C.-area debut of the La Scala Philharmonic, led by the charismatic Riccardo Chailly, the ensemble plays beloved works and classic Italian repertoire. Founded in 1982 by conductor Claudio Abbado, the orchestra has since been led by such renowned directors as Lorin Maazel and Wolfgang Sawallisch. “Chailly is a first-class interpreter of Italian repertoire.” (The Irish Times)

ROSSINI Overture to William Tell

ROTA La Strada Ballet Suite

RESPIGHI The Fountains of Rome

RESPIGHI The Pines of Rome

Monday, October 15, 8:00 pm Kennedy Center Concert Hall

The Cleveland Orchestra

Franz Welser-Most, conductor

Music director Franz Welser-Möst led this venerable orchestra in a journey throughout centuries of musical composition, from Mozart’s delicate Symphony No. 28 to Adams’ contemporary composition.

Mozart: Symphony No. 28 in C Major

John Adams: Guide to Strange Places

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique”

Thursday, October 18, 8:00 pm The Music Center at Strathmore

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Yefim Bronfman, piano

This celebrated conductor-less ensemble continues tackles Brahms’ mighty Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman….

Brahms: Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 3, and 10

Schoenberg: Kammersymphonie No. 1, Op. 9

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15R

Tuesday, October 23, 8:00 pm Kennedy Center Concert Hall

St. Petersburg Philharmonic

Yuri Temirkanov, conductor

Julia Fischer, violin

Young violinist and WPAS Kreeger Series alumna Julia Fischer joins the former Baltimore SO conductor and one of the most storied orchestras in the world…

Mozart: Marriage of Figaro Overture

Beethoven: Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 61

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5, Op. 100

Monday, November 12, 8:00 pm Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Kathryn Stott, piano

Yo-Yo Ma and one of his favorite collaborators in the world, English Kathryn Stott, in a breathtaking program of music from France from the southern hemisphere…

Tuesday, November 20, 8:00 pm The Music Center at Strathmore

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone

Academy of Choral Art

Moscow Chamber Orchestra

Constantin Orbelian, conductor

“From Russia with Love:” A range of songs and opera from Russia old and new from Opera star Dmitri Hvorostovsky and a hand-picked choir.P

Thursday, December 6, 8:00 pm Kennedy Center Concert Hal

lThe Philadelphia Orchestra

James Conlon, conductorHélène Grimaud, piano

The Fabulous Philadelphians return for their annual concert under the leadership of guest conductor James Conlon. Fresh off the release of her new recording of the Emperor Concerto, Hélène Grimaud performs the Beethoven concerto live with the Philadelphians. The orchestra also plays for just the second time a work by Edgard Varese they commissioned in 1924…

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”

Varèse: Amériques

Ravel: La Valse