WDAV Blog

Jane Little, Atlanta’s Dainty Double-Bass Player For 71 Years, Dies Onstage

Jane Little spent her long life making beautiful music, and she died this weekend doing just what she loved, onstage. Little played with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for more than 71 years. She joined the symphony in 1945, when she was just 16.

“My father took me down to the Southeastern Music Company in Atlanta to buy my first bass, and he had no idea what I was going to play,” she recalled. “So, I says, ‘Daddy, there it is in the window, I’m playing this bass. This is what I want.’ He says, ‘I can’t believe you’re playing that big thing.’ ”

Little taught herself to play that bass, and never stopped. In an interview in February, she told member station WABE in Atlanta that she started playing at the symphony for free. Eventually, they did begin to pay her — $35 every other week. In those days, to make ends meet, Little traveled across the South, performing with other symphony orchestras in Augusta and Savannah, Ga., and in Chattanooga, Tenn. She also invested in real estate just in case her career with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra didn’t last. She need not have bothered. She was a well-loved orchestra member, and the feeling was mutual.

“I was so lucky to be able to come into an orchestra in my own hometown,” she said. “I was married to the principal flute player for 41 years. And he was this big, 6-feet-2 guy that played a little flute — and he could carry my bass for me, too.” Little herself was surprisingly small-framed — only 4 foot, 11 inches — to play the largest member of the string section.

Back in February, Little was recognized by Guinness World Records when she marked her 71st anniversary with the symphony. “It seems like I’ve been there a hundred years,” Little said, laughing. “It’s hard to remember when I didn’t play in the symphony. It’s a hard life, but if you work hard enough and love it enough, you’ll do it.”

Little died Sunday. She was 87.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

From the Top: Sibling Duo Featured in Creative Music Video

Cellists Noah and Sydney Lee perform Passacaglia on a Theme by Handel by Johan Halvorsen in an animation that blends music & art. The video effort was created by the program From the Top, which celebrates the talents of classically-trained young musicians. The siblings have each performed on the program and were invited back to be in the film.

The video showcases a technique called rotoscoping, where video is “traced” and animated on top of live action video. You might remember this fun effect from the popular 80’s video “Take on Me” by a-ha.

Read more about the duo and film makers on From the Top.

British Composer Peter Maxwell Davies Dies At 81

Prolific and multifaceted British composer and conductor Peter Maxwell Davies died Monday at age 81 at his home in the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland. His death, from leukemia, was reported on the websites of both his publisher and his management company.

Called the “harlequin of British music” for more than five decades in a tribute by author Paul Griffiths, Maxwell Davies leaves a trove of varied works. Within some 300 pieces, there are 10 symphonies (hailed by the Times of London as “the most important symphonic cycle since Shostakovich”), concertos, operas, song cycles, chamber music of all kinds, ballets, choral pieces and music for children. His latest work, The Hogboon, an opera for children, will debut with the London Symphony Orchestra June 26. He’ll be remembered for both his controversial, expressionistic early works and later, more lyrical pieces incorporating elements of folk music, such as An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a 1985 tone poem that features bagpipes.

One of the composer’s more recent concertos inspired by seascapes near his island home of Sanday, Orkney is Fiddler on the Shore, written for violinist Daniel Hope, who premiered the piece at the 2009 BBC Proms concerts with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

“His music had a romantic and yet robust expression, which was particularly endearing,” Hope wrote in an email. “He was a great composer, a fine musician and a true gent. He also had an extremely wicked sense of humor and a way of looking at the world that was refreshingly original. He’ll be greatly missed.”

Maxwell Davies was born Sept. 8, 1934 in Salford, just outside Manchester. Composing seemed to come naturally for him. He wrote his first pieces in 1942 while still learning to play the piano. Later he studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, Princeton University and Manchester University, where he helped form a coterie of like-minded composers interested in the latest serial techniques — including Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr — known as the New Music Manchester group.

With a keen ear on the popular modernists of the times, such as Pierre Boulez, Maxwell Davies was also deeply influenced by the masters of the past, especially choral music from the English Renaissance. In 1962 he began in earnest the composing of his opera Taverner, inspired by 16th-century composer John Taverner. The music and ideas in the opera folded back on themselves and triggered a period of “parody and distortion” in his music, as Griffiths describes it.

At this time Maxwell Davies was beginning to earn his first important commissions, including one for the popular Proms concert series in London. He was also finishing up his directorship of music at the Cirencester Grammar School, initiating his longstanding dedication to music education in Britain.

Not everyone took the composer’s music to heart, at least right away. As reported by the BBC, people shouted “rubbish” at the 1969 premiere of his music-theater work Eight Songs for a Mad King. And earlier today in an email Griffiths recalled attending the debut of the composer’s Worldes Blis: Motet for Orchestra, which inspired much of the audience to walk out in protest.

The year 1971 marked a turning point in the composer’s music, coinciding with his move to the austere landscapes of the Orkney Islands. Maxwell Davies began writing music in a more relaxed vein, inspired by his surroundings, in pieces such as the song cycle Stone Litany, the chamber symphony A Mirror of Whitening Light and the solo piano piece Farewell to Stromness, part of The Yellow Cake Revue, a musical protest in cabaret form against uranium mining in the Orkney Islands.

Maxwell Davies was showered with honors, including knighthood in 1987. In 2004 he was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music, a 10-year position, and in 2014 he was made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honor. The composer also thrived as a conductor, and held positions with the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic. He regularly led top orchestras around the world, and for 20 years directed his own chamber ensemble, Fires of London.

Although he lived in a solitary place, Maxwell Davies believed composers should interact with society at large. It was a belief, Griffiths writes, that “took him from working as a school music master when he was in his mid-twenties to serving as Master of the Queen’s Music through his seventies. Answering an evident need, wherever it came from, he could compose a musical play for young children or a birthday ode for the monarch with the same care and relish he brought to a string quartet or an opera.”

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

Legendary Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt Dies at 86

The late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, rehearsing in Salzburg, Austria in 2012.

The late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, rehearsing in Salzburg, Austria in 2012.

Widely influential conductor and early-music specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt has died at age 86 in the Austrian village of St. Georgen im Attergau, near Salzburg.

His wife, Alice Harnoncourt, announced his death on his website; the cause of death was not disclosed. Harnoncourt had announced his retirement Dec. 5 — the day before his 86th birthday — in a handwritten letter published on his website and included in the program book of the Vienna Musikverein concert hall, where he appeared frequently.

Harnoncourt was born in 1929 in Berlin into a wealthy, aristocratic family. His full name was Count Nikolaus de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt; his father was an Austrian count and his maternal great-grandfather was a Habsburg archduke. From the time Harnoncourt was a toddler, his family lived in the Meran Palace in Graz, Austria. With the Nazi annexation of the country, the family’s security grew more precarious, and in 1944 they moved to the Salzkammergut area, where the young Harnoncourt began playing cello. By 1948, he moved to Vienna to study cello more seriously. It was there, at the Vienna Music Academy, that Harnoncourt founded his first early music ensemble — the Vienna Viola da Gamba Quartet, which included his wife-to-be, Alice Hoffelner.

Harnoncourt did not graduate from the conservatory. Instead, in 1952, he left shortly before his final exams to accept a position playing in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, remaining until 1969.

Alongside Harnoncourt’s work with this mainstream orchestra, his interest in pre-Baroque music increased. In 1954, he and his wife formed a group to perform the first notable opera ever written, Monteverdi‘s L’Orfeo. (That performance was conducted by composer Paul Hindemith, another artist fascinated by early music.) By 1957, their ensemble had a name: the Concentus Musicus Wien. With that group’s founding, Harnoncourt became one of the fathers of the early music movement, which sought to bring pre-Baroque and Baroque compositions back into regular performance, played in ways they might have been heard when they were new.

In an essay on Harnoncourt’s website, his interest in early music is presented as the direct inverse of the aesthetics and perhaps even cultural politics of artists like Karajan:

His 1982 book Musik als Klangrede (Music as Speech) was the first to comprehensively describe the theory of historically informed performance practice. He emphasises again and again that when making music every idea must develop from original sources. He demands that his musicians be ready to discuss, that they ask questions; indeed, he expects objections. This is what automatically makes him the antithesis of the traditional conductor who never justifies his decisions to the “lower orchestra musicians,” but rather enforces his will autocratically. The figurehead of this stance is Herbert von Karajan, whose “kingdom,” the Salzburg Festival, was the epitome of established society events in the eighties, and which celebrated art as a kind of High Mass for the financially elite.

There was a similar motivation at work in Harnoncourt’s decision to evolve from his work as a cellist to his calling as a conductor, as he told NPR’s Performance Today in 2006. Speaking of his years playing in the Vienna Symphony, he said, “I played with all the great conductors, I played the whole classical repertoire and practically everything which was newly composed in that time.”

“But in the last years of that time,” he continued, “we had to play the last symphonies of Mozart very, very often, especially the G minor Symphony (No. 40), which is a very tragic and at the same time consoling piece. And when this piece was played, the audience started to smile, and to wave their heads. It was a familiar situation — which I hated, I must say. And when I saw them all starting to smile for this music which speaks of death, I was absolutely sure that we were doing everything wrong by performing this symphony. And there was one day when I said, ‘I don’t want ever to play that again in that way.’ And the next morning, I went to the director and said, ‘I will quit the orchestra; I have to do it myself.’ It wasn’t easy, because I was a young man with four children, and I had nothing in view — and nobody taught me to conduct.”

By the early 1970s, Harnoncourt was conducting performances of Monteverdi’s operas at venues like the Piccola Scala in Milan; in 1975, he presented the first staged cycles of Monteverdi’s three extant operas at the Zurich Opera House. It was also during this time he began a landmark project with his collaborator Gustav Leonhardt: recording all of J.S. Bach‘s known sacred cantatas, about 200 of them, in historically informed performances that featured lean groups of musicians and singers and boy soloists. It was an undertaking that required enormous scholarship as well as immense effort, resulting in 45 double-LP albums recorded over nearly 20 years.

As Harnoncourt’s reputation for early music continued to grow, he was encouraged to reach into material beyond the Baroque. In 1980, the Zurich Opera House hired him to stage all of Mozart’s operas. As time went on, Harnoncourt began to explore larger and larger swaths of the repertoire, from works of Beethoven to music by Dvořák, Bartók and Alban Berg. As a conductor, Harnoncourt was particularly interested in creating highly detailed and often astringently bracing performances — the same qualities he had brought to his work with Bach and Mozart.

Harnoncourt’s recording of a certain 20th-century opera seemed to come out of left field, at least until one heard the story of the conductor’s longtime connection to it. When he was still a child, his New York-based uncle, René d’Harnoncourt (who was director of the Museum of Modern Art from 1949 to 1968), sent his family a vocal score of an opera written by a friend of his. It was George Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

A Maestro Remembered: A Tribute to Otto-Werner Mueller

by Thomas Burge

One of the more memorable conductors and teachers of my career has passed. Maestro Otto-Werner Mueller was born in Germany in 1926 and passed away here in Charlotte on Thursday. A seemingly formidable giant, he will be remembered for being supremely generous with his knowledge. His life was a true contribution to music, clearly leading the orchestra in rehearsal but then “taking a back seat” in the concert to the performers. It was never about “him”, but always the music.

To my way of thinking he was not a “performing conductor” but his “performance” was always in the rehearsal. He truly honored the title “maestro” for its actual meaning; that of master and teacher. He was never “performing,” but always teaching.

He taught conducting at Juilliard, The Curtis Institute, Yale, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Victoria School of Music in British Columbia. A list of his conducting students includes conductors and Musical Directors of the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony, and many more.

As a student, I will always remember his resounding baritone and his German accent; “TROMBOOOOONES! DO NOT SHOUT AT ME WITH YOUR INSTRUMENTS!”

No matter what musical forces might be necessary, he helped this young developing musician see that for music to be truly understood, the beauty must be honored and at the core of all we do.

Thank you, Maestro. Rest in Peace, surrounded by the beauty of the music and musicians you helped create.


Thomas “Tom” Burge is the principal trombonist for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, an instructor at Wingate University and the Sunday evening host on WDAV Classical Public Radio.

Image courtesy of the Curtis Institute of Music

[Audio] Are You Ready for Some Football Music?

There was a time when corporate identification was conveyed as much through music as it was through images. You didn’t even need words. People heard the song, and they knew the product. This form of branding is now almost extinct, mostly because television audiences are so fragmented. Except in the one area where people still consistently watch live TV: sports. And for NFL football, the TV networks are still branding the games with musical signatures that go back a very, very long time.

To read the full article, visit studio360.org