WDAV Blog

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

Jon Vickers, Intense Canadian Tenor, Dies At 88

With the death of Jon Vickers, opera has lost one of its most intense voices. The Canadian tenor, often hailed as one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, died Friday in Ontario. In a note to London’s Royal Opera House, Vickers’ family said he lost a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.

Vickers’ voice was a force of nature — large, strong and well suited to heroic characters such as the lead roles in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Verdi’s Otello and Beethoven’s Fidelio. John Steane, in his book Singers of the Century, talks of Vickers’ incomparable intensity, stating that “if there had not been, working from within, a genuine spiritual refinement, the sheer size of his voice, breadth as well as power, would surely have bludgeoned the listener into insensibility.” The singer could also reduce his hurricane force to a silvery thread of tone, something approaching a croon but fully supported and dramatically absorbing.

Along with his imposing voice, Vickers inhabited his roles with penetrating earnestness, bordering on ferocity. Reviewing the tenor’s 1972 recording of Tristan und Isolde, Robin Holloway wrote: “There is no doubt whatsoever about the stature of his tour de force, but it remains extreme — something unique as if the story were, just this once, literally true. I can pay no higher tribute, but I never want to hear it again.” Vickers was drawn to characters who struggled from within — to Canio in Pagliacci, Don José in Carmen and Jason in Medea, which he sang opposite Maria Callas. Steane says Vickers was one of the very few singers who could match Callas “in the magnetism of performance.”

His portrayal of the title character in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes may have been the tenor’s crowning achievement. As the misunderstood fisherman within a narrow-minded community, Vickers brought an explosive, if controversial intensity to the role onstage and in a 1978 recording. As Grimes, he could be savage and unpredictable, with a sneer in his voice, then shift suddenly to show a dreamy, vulnerable and tender side of the character. The composer himself had mixed feelings about Vickers’ interpretation. On one hand, Britten disapproved of it and Vickers’ insistence on changing some of the text. On the other hand, the opera had found a new popularity, with companies mounting productions specifically for the tenor, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1967.

Vickers was born Oct. 29, 1926 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and grew up in a devoutly religious household where everyone sang and played instruments — “a poor man’s Trapp family,” Vickers said, according to Jeannie Williams’ biography Jon Vickers: A Hero’s Life. He held jobs as a butcher, a Woolworth’s store manager and a tool salesman before enrolling in Toronto’s Royal Conservatory in 1950.

He made his stage debut as the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto four years later. In 1957 he began singing at London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden, where he later triumphed in the demanding role of Énée in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. In 1974 he sang that role at the Metropolitan Opera, along with multiple performances of Tristan and Otello, all in a stretch of six weeks.

Vickers could be a challenging colleague and his religious convictions sometimes conflicted with particular roles. He refused to sing in two major productions of Tannhäuser (at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera) claiming that “Wagner challenged the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.” He was also known to scold fellow singers and conductors, and once even the audience. In a 1975 Dallas Opera production of Tristan, he reprimanded patrons during the prelude to Act 3 to “shut up your damn coughing.”

“The thing that wasn’t printed was that they stopped coughing,” Vickers told the Dallas Morning News in 2002. “It wasn’t necessary to cough.”

As his career and his magnificent voice wound down, Vickers settled into his farmhouse north of Toronto, then retired in 1988, occasionally giving a master class. In 1998 he recorded Richard Strauss’ Enoch Arden as narrator with pianist Marc-André Hamelin. He is survived by two daughters, three sons, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.