Major Themes: Our top classical picks, from Bach to Brahms and beyond

Major Themes is a new monthly feature from American Public Media, in which classical stations and programs around the country recommend a must-hear recording based on what’s happening with them.

For the first installment, they checked in with friends in New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas, as well as the producers of Performance Today. Here are their picks, with an emphasis on soloists and chamber works from Bach to Brahms and beyond.

Anne Akiko Meyers, Serenade: The Love Album (eOne)

Anne Akiko Meyers, Serenade: The Love Album eOne

Anne Akiko Meyers, Serenade: The Love Album eOne

Cincinnati’s 90.9 WGUC begins its 100 Days of Bernstein on May 18 in celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial year. For each of the 100 days leading up to his birthday on Aug. 25, 90.9 will spotlight a piece of music he either composed, conducted or performed. One album that will be in the rotation is Serenade: The Love Album from Anne Akiko Myers. On it, she beautifully performs both his “Serenade” (after Plato’s “Symposium”) and “Somewhere” from West Side Story, alongside Keith Lockhart and the London Symphony Orchestra. Myers has been a longtime friend of WGUC, and this album provides the perfect addition to our Bernstein celebration.

Jessica Lorey, classical music director, WGUC (Cincinnati, Ohio)


Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas; Jon Manasse, clarinet, and Jon Nakamatsu, piano (Harmonia Mundi)

Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas; Jon Manasse, clarinet, and Jon Nakamatsu, piano cover

Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas; Jon Manasse, clarinet, and Jon Nakamatsu, piano Harmonia Mundi

Ah, April! A month to celebrate poetry, spring and sometimes Easter. At WXXI Classical 91.5, we celebrate the musical riches of our town with Performance Rochester, a local on-air and online celebration where we present live performances drawn from concerts throughout our city. There’s so much going on in the Rochester music scene that it’s impossible to get to even a small portion of the events. So each year Classical 91.5 brings these performances to our audience with concerts recorded in local concert halls and churches, featuring music that spans the ages: Monteverdi motets, arias from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a psalm by Lili Boulanger, even Bach’s magnificent Mass in B-minor. This year, two international soloists were featured with local ensembles: pianist Jon Nakamatsu, playing Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 with members of the Society for Chamber Music in Rochester, and clarinetist Jon Manasse, performing Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet with the Amenda Quartet for the First Muse Series. So we’ve chosen a CD that features these two gentlemen who came to play in our fair city: their Harmonia Mundi CD of, naturally, Brahms Clarinet Sonatas.

Ruth Phinney, program director, WXXI (Rochester, N.Y.)

Brad Mehldau, After Bach (Nonesuch)

Brad Mehldau, After Bach Nonesuch

Brad Mehldau, After Bach Nonesuch

Right now I’m listening to Brad Mehldau’s new album, After Bach. Mehldau is often called a jazz pianist, but over the past 20 years he has proven that his artistry goes way beyond the limits of the genre. He works in capital M “Music.” In this case, the music starts with Johann Sebastian Bach. Tracks on the album alternate between Mehldau performing movements from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier and Mehldau’s own compositions, inspired by those figures from Bach. The new music stunned me with its inventiveness and variety while never straying far from Bach’s original. If The Well-Tempered Clavier were a small boxing ring in which Mehldau moved, he not only used the entire floor space; he also figured out how to bounce from rope to rope without ever touching the ground. Bach was the consummate improviser in his day. I think he would have been fascinated by Mehldau’s musical parkour.

Suzanne Schaffer, senior producer, Performance Today


Cypress String Quartet, The American Album (Avie)

Cypress String Quartet, The American Album Basil Childers/Avie

Cypress String Quartet, The American Album Basil Childers/Avie

WDAV sees classical music as a way to build community. Chamber music is especially well-suited for this, because it’s so intimate and portable – it can be performed almost anywhere. Recently, we’ve explored this in a number of ways. Our Classical Harvest Concert Series brings chamber musicians to farmers markets on autumn weekend mornings to surprise and delight patrons. In a contrasting effort, we launched the Small Batch Concert Series this year at a micro brewery in the urban setting of Charlotte’s trendy NoDa neighborhood. Its success has been staggering and has drawn a vibrant cross section of the city’s growing population. Finally, the annual Young Chamber Musicians Competition we launched in 2013 has provided an inspiring glimpse of the future of classical music performance with contestants from the major conservatories in the country. The live broadcast of the competition on April 22 capped off our monthlong WDAV Festival of Chamber Music, when listeners had four opportunities each weekday to hear a beloved chamber masterwork. This recording of Kevin Puts’ Lento assai by the Cypress String Quartet is typical of the kinds of performances we featured to highlight the power and appeal of chamber music.

Frank Dominguez, general manager and content director, WDAV (Davidson/Charlotte, N.C.)


Ludovico Einaudi, In a Time Lapse (Ponderosa)

Ludovico Einaudi, In a Time Lapse Ponderosa

Ludovico Einaudi, In a Time Lapse Ponderosa

Ludovico Einaudi will be performing in Austin this summer. You’ve probably heard his music in films and commercials. You may have seen him on YouTube, playing the piano on a platform in the Arctic Ocean in support of Greenpeace. Einaudi’s artistry has inspired remixes by electronic music artists, and arrangements by classical musicians such as Angele Dubeau. It’s hard to choose just one disc, but his 2013 release, In a Time Lapse, is a favorite, from the propulsive energy of “Experience” to the dreamy expansiveness of “Waterways.” Einaudi’s cinematic minimalism is the perfect accompaniment, whether I’m working or relaxing.

Sara Schneider, announcer and producer, KMFA (Austin, Texas)

Familiar Names

by Hannah Liberman

When you think of Mendelssohn, odds are that you’re not picturing Fanny plucking out a tune on the piano. Ask people about Mozart, and the name that comes to mind probably isn’t Maria Anna. But these women, whose brothers, fathers, and husbands enjoy legacies as classical music heroes, had noteworthy careers of their own, albeit often overshadowed by their male relatives’ successes. Here are some great female composers whose music is so magical you’ll find yourself saying “Wolfgang Amadeus who?”

Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s baby brother Felix might be the household name, but the German-born pianist composed over 460 pieces herself, including a number of songs published under her brother’s name. Fanny and Felix were close; her only known public performance was of his Piano Concerto No. 1 and after her death, Felix wrote his String Quartet No. 6 in her memory.

Check out the hauntingly beautiful melody of Fanny Mednelssohn’s Noturno in G Minor.

Schumann, "one of the most soulful and famous pianists of the day", according to Edvard Grieg.

Clara Schumann

Clara was a child prodigy turned accomplished pianist who premiered several works by Johannes Brahms. Her husband was the famous composer Robert Schumann; the two were so close and so respected each other’s talents that they kept a joint musical diary. Clara composed more when she was younger, before her pianist career and married life got in the way. She wrote several piano pieces, songs, and orchestral works.

Here is Clara Schumann’s gorgeous piece Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Opus 22.

Maria Anna Mozart

Maria Anna Mozart

Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart was Wolfgang’s older sister and enjoyed a short-lived career as the family’s musical prodigy. Her father would take Nannerl and Wolfgang on tours across Europe to showcase their musical talents (she was incredible on the harpsichord and piano forte and even received top billing over her brother). Unfortunately, society and Nannerl’s own father dictated that she stop pursuing music once she reached a marriageable age. Wolfgang wrote letters indicating Maria Anna composed pieces herself, but no such records exist. However, you can learn more about Ms. Mozart’s life through a variety of pop culture references, including this recent play from Sylvia Milo in 2013.


Hannah Lieberman is a senior at Davidson College where she studies Political Science and Theatre. She loves her work at WDAV, where you can hear her live on Sunday mornings.

High Tech Hollywood Gets Medieval

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Fionn Whitehead in a scene from

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Fionn Whitehead in a scene from “Dunkirk.” (Melissa Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

By Bruce Scott

Director Christopher Nolan is known for slickly futuristic films including Interstellar, Inception and The Dark Knight. Yet, in the Academy Award-nominated blockbuster Dunkirk, Nolan takes his high-tech, movie-making arsenal backward in time to the early days of World War II, telling a story with legendary status — the near-miraculous rescue of stranded British troops from the beaches of France.

So, it seems appropriate that Hollywood veteran Hans Zimmer, in his Oscar-nominated musical score for that film, hints at artistic strategies that also look back into history, reflecting techniques pioneered by composers nearly 1000 years ago.

Beginning in the very first moments of the film, Zimmer’s music makes extensive use of a theme familiar to lovers of classical music everywhere, and especially in Britain. It’s the melody of the “Nimrod” movement from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Elgar’s “Nimrod” has become an artistic icon in England. It’s played at moments of great national pride and patriotism, remembrance and mourning. That makes it an obvious choice for a film evoking a pivotal moment in British history — an event vividly recalled for both its tragedy, and its heroism.

Yet, in an intensely driven film lasting 105 minutes, the extensive use of such a widely familiar melody, no matter how appropriate, might easily dilute its meaning. So, how does a composer continuously employ a familiar and beloved melody in ways that expand its significance, reflecting the profoundly moving story it helps to tell, without allowing it to become trite and repetitive?

As it happens, church composers in the Middle Ages — the days of Gregorian chant — had a similar problem. They were bound by tradition, and often by doctrine, to set each liturgical text to its own, specific melody — a plainchant. To expand their means of expression while meeting that requirement, composers used a method now known as organum.

Over decades, and even centuries, organum took many forms. In one, the plainchant became a cantus firmus, or “fixed song.” The melody was greatly extended — stretched out until each note sounded like an underlying drone. Then, over those extended notes, composers wrote freely moving harmonies and counterpoint — leaving the mandatory melody technically intact, but barely recognizable.

The music in Dunkirk does something similar. In the film’s opening scene, the “Nimrod” melody emerges slowly, its notes extended and overlapping, obscured by an eerie atmosphere of sonic effects. In subsequent scenes, the theme is stretched even further, with counterpoint provided both in the music, and by movie sounds — the chaos of battle, the pounding of the sea, the cheering of men who, finally, see rescue at hand.

In one striking instance, the opening note of “Nimrod” actually bridges two scenes — the tragedy of a dying boy, and a pilot’s glimpse of distant beaches and the troops he hopes to protect. That first note alone lasts more than 30 seconds! It’s only after the second and third notes are played that the theme itself becomes evident.

Eventually, near the film’s end, “Nimrod” is again heard in extended form, at first hard to discern, as that pilot faces a life-or-death predicament. At the pivotal moment, the rhythm accelerates, the harmonies resolve, and the famous melody reveals itself, with its full measure of tragedy, resignation … and relief. Thus, a distinctly modern film tells an immensely moving story from history, made even more effective by timely music with ancient roots.

This Is My Story, This Is My Song

Pictured: Corey Barksdale‘s Budda Bar I, Acrylic on Canvas 48″ x 24″

by Dr. Carl Dupont

It is a great honor to tour the country with the American Spiritual Ensemble. The group’s mission, to preserve and celebrate the Negro Spiritual, fulfills a professional goal of mine as a teacher, performer, and researcher interested in promoting the intellectual legacy of black musicians.

However, and most significantly, performing with the group also fulfills a desire I have to communicate with my ancestors. In this country’s infancy Africans and their descendants were prohibited from acquiring literacy in an attempt to control their reality in service to a white supremacist agenda.

In response, these mothers, fathers, architects, farmers, dancers, healers, inventors, mechanics, and preachers became musical storytellers in order to create music that could tell of their experience during enslavement. Without the aid of pen or paper they implemented the Negro Spiritual as a musical tool to transmit their hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations into the present.

Whereas some people proudly show off their family’s tartan or crest, I can look to the Negro Spiritual as my connection to the past. I can hear the voices and feel spirits of the ancestors singing to me as I sing to them.

When I am performing with the American Spiritual Ensemble, I am on stage with a generation of talented opera singers that have sung in major opera houses and concert halls all over the world – and I can feel how proud we are making the ancestors – who endured the harshest of conditions – so we could thrive.

Honoring their sacrifice by keeping their music alive is a privilege and a duty. It reminds me to keep pressing towards a day for full equality and inclusion.

Dr. Carl Dupont is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. To learn more about the American Spiritual Ensemble, click here.


Romantic Pieces by Black Composers

Pictured: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

At WDAV, the month of February brings with it two great programming opportunities. Though we play a wide selection of classical music throughout the year, in February we get to highlight certain pieces as we celebrate both Black History Month and Valentine’s Day. It may seem that the calendar coincidence is all that connects these two holidays, but they actually overlap when it comes to classical music, too. Many incredibly romantic pieces have been composed by talented black musicians, and we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorites below. Enjoy!

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Romance in G for Violin and Orchestra

Coleridge-Taylor was a prolific composer whose works included several string quartets, symphonies, sonatas, and songs. Named after the famous poet, Coleridge-Taylor studied at the Royal College of Music in London and soon gained renown as the “African Mahler.” Here, one of his many romances is performed by the London Philharmonic with Nicholas Braithwaite conducting and Lorraine McAslan on violin.



Robert Nathaniel Dett: “Magnolias” from Magnolia Suite

Dett is a Canadian-born composer, musician, and professor who grew to fame in America for his use of African American folk and spiritual music as inspiration for Romantic Era-style classical music. His piano and choral pieces are so noteworthy that a choir in Canada dedicated to the works of black composers bears his name. Here, Denver Oldham performs the opening to Dett’s Magnolia Suite, which premiered around 1912.



H. Leslie Adams: “The Heart of a Woman”

Adams went from studying music at Oberlin College, California State University, and Ohio State to a successful career as an orchestral composer. His works, mostly notably piano etudes and choral pieces, have been performed by countless symphonies around the world. Here, Darryl Taylor performs his piece The Heart of a Woman, an arrangement of the poem by G.D. Johnson, with Robin Guy on piano.



Florence Price: “Song to a Dark Virgin”

Price is one of the most successful black female composers in the 20th century, as she was “the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer.” This piece, an arrangement of the Langston Hughes poem by the same name, is hauntingly beautiful, performed here by opera singer Marie Hadley Robinson

William Grant Still: A Music-Maker and a Groundbreaker

Pictured: William Grant Still in 1949; credit: Carl van Vechten on Wikipedia.

by Hannah Liberman

To the opera-goers who attended the NYC Opera on March 31, 1949, Troubled Island was simply another original work premiering at the renowned theatre. But the three-act opera, chronicling the assassination of a self-proclaimed emperor during the Haitian revolution of the late 18th century, was so much more than initially met the eye.

With music composed by William Grant Still and a libretto partially written by Langston Hughes, it was the first opera composed by an African American to be produced by a major opera house.

As unprecedented as it was, Troubled Island was met with mixed reviews. Critics questioned Still’s ability to transition from “the soufflé of operetta [to] the soup bone of opera,” and the show was never revived in full.

What’s more, the opening cast featured two white opera stars as the lead characters, while both had been written as black Haitians. But Troubled Island earned 22 curtain calls its opening night, and its legacy as a revolutionary work- both in content and context- continues to this day.

It not only beautifully brought new subject matter to the opera world, but opened up conversation about the lack of representation of marginalized groups in American opera.

Troubled Island may not be in some opera enthusiasts’ repertoires, but it has stood the test of time, with noteworthy productions happening as recently as 2013. Meanwhile, opera companies are starting to replace outdated practices so more prolific artists like Still can have their works produced.

Watch a performance of “I Dream a World” from Troubled Island:


Hannah Lieberman is a senior at Davidson College where she studies Political Science and Theatre. She loves her work at WDAV, where you can hear her live on Sunday mornings.