Composer Pierre Boulez, A Revered Iconoclast, Has Died At 90

Pierre Boulez, the French composer and conductor whose career spanned from the avant-garde post-World War II era to the computer age, has died, according to the French culture ministry. He was 90. Boulez famously challenged his peers and his audience to rethink their ideas of sound and harmony.

In his music, Boulez often created rich and contrasting layers that were built on musical traditions from Asia and Africa, and on the 12-tone technique pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg — as in his 1955 work, Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer Without a Master).

“I see music as a kind of continuity, like a big tree,” Boulez told NPR in 2000. “Of course there are many branches, many different directions. I think music is in constant evolution, and there is nothing absolutely fixed and rigidly determined.”

NPR’s Tom Huizenga cited the quote in a piece last year examining the composer’s rebellious roots: Boulez once disrupted a Stravinsky concert, and later said that opera’s problems could be solved by blowing up opera houses.

Boulez also had a knack for polemics — for instance, The Guardian referenced this quote: “anyone who has not felt… the necessity of the dodecaphonic [12-tone] language is OF NO USE.”

But the oft-repeated idea that his music was centered in mathematics is a bit overblown, Boulez told Fresh Air host Terry Gross in 2005.

Saying that a musical language always includes both rational and irrational parts, he noted, “What I tried to find, that’s freedom — but a freedom which is based on discipline.”

Boulez, who won 26 Grammy awards, had a prodigiously broad musical reach. In the 1970s, he founded the IRCAM music and science research center at the Pompidou Center in Paris. That’s where, in 1984, he conducted music from Frank Zappa’s album The Perfect Stranger.

Born in 1925, Boulez studied at the Paris Conservatory under Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz, before embarking on a career that perpetually sought new and modern approaches to music.

He emerged as a conductor in the late 1950s, and for a stretch of years in the 1970s, he served as both the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and as the music director of the New York Philharmonic. He also had a long relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which in 2006 named him conductor emeritus.

Discussing Boulez’s work on the podium back in 2010, Fresh Air’s Lloyd Schwartz wrote:

“Boulez is famous for his amazing ear. He lets you hear every detail. But there are two other Boulez qualities he isn’t often given credit for. One is his innate and effortless sense of the right style. In Boulez’s hands, Haydn’s symphony — for a change — actually sounds Viennese.”

As for his famous statement that opera houses should be blown up, Boulez told Fresh Air in 2005 that he was only joking. The headlines that followed, he said, missed the humor in the statement.

“That was very funny to me,” Boulez said. “A number of times I have heard this quote. I thought I would have said only one sentence in my life.”

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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.

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Stolen Stradivarius Recovered After 35 Years

The denouement of a 35-year drama takes place Thursday at the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. And I trust that my father, virtuoso violinist Roman Totenberg, who died three years ago, will be watching from somewhere.

For decades he played his beloved Stradivarius violin all over the world. And then one day, he turned around and it was gone. Stolen.

While he was greeting well-wishers after a concert, it was snatched from his office at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass.

It was a crushing loss for my father. As he put it, he had lost his “musical partner of 38 years.” And when he would ultimately buy a Guarneri violin from the same period as the Stradivarius, he’d have to rework the fingering of his entire repertoire for the new instrument.

My father would dream of opening his violin case and seeing the Strad there again, but he never laid eyes on it again. He died in 2012, but the Stradivarius lived on — somewhere.

Then, on the last day in June, I got a call from FBI Special Agent Christopher McKeogh.

“We believe that the FBI has recovered your father’s stolen violin,” he said.

As the reality of his message washed over me, I had a hard time actually believing it. I called my sisters right away, and we were soon laughing and crying on the phone.

I would love to tell you some bizarre story of the violin’s travels through the underworld, but the true story is much more mundane, even pathetic.

My father had always suspected who had stolen the violin — a young aspiring violinist named Phillip Johnson, who was largely unknown to my father but had been seen outside my dad’s office around the time the violin was stolen. Soon thereafter, Johnson’s ex-girlfriend went to my parents and told them she was quite sure Johnson had taken it. Law enforcement officials believed, however, that was not enough for a search warrant. My mother was so frustrated that she famously would ask friends if they knew anyone in the mob willing to break into an apartment and search for the violin.

Phillip Johnson eventually moved to California, had an undistinguished musical career and died of cancer at age 58, a year before my father died at the age of 101.

Fast-forward four more years. Johnson’s ex-wife and her boyfriend were cleaning house, and they came across a violin case that her former husband had left to her, with a combination lock on it. They broke the lock and opened the case to find a violin with a label inside that said it was made in 1734 by the most famous violin-maker of all time — Antonio Stradivari.

A musician friend put her in touch with violin-maker and appraiser Phillip Injeian in Pittsburgh.

“Of course I hear almost every day people telling me that they found a Stradivarius in the attic,” Injeian says.

That’s because, while there are only about 550 Stradivarius violins in existence today, there are thousands and thousands of violins that have a “Stradivarius” label stamped inside them — some of them good copies, and some just cheap imitations. So Injeian suggested the ex-wife send him photographs rather than waste a trip to the East Coast.

The photos she sent looked “so remarkably good,” he says, that he went to the Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivari, the compilation of all Stradivarius instruments known to exist, and looked at instruments made in 1734. There he saw that a famous violin belonging to Roman Totenberg had been stolen and never recovered. It was known as the “Ames Stradivarius,” after violinist George Ames, who performed on it in the late 1800s.

Soon the appraiser and the ex-wife agreed to meet in New York. And on June 26, Injeian went to her hotel.

“I opened the case and looked at the instrument” and “checked it out for over a half-hour before I said anything,” he recalls.

“And I said these words: ‘Well, I’ve got good news for you, and I’ve got bad news for you,’ ” Injeian says. ” ‘The good news is that this is a Stradivarius. The bad news is it was stolen 35, 36 years ago from Roman Totenberg.’ ”

Injeian also told her he had to report the discovery to law enforcement authorities right away.

Within two hours, special agents McKeogh and John Iannuzzi from the FBI’s art theft team were at the hotel.

“It’s rare in our business that we have the opportunity for one-stop shopping,” McKeogh says, noting that the stolen violin, the person who possessed it and the expert appraiser were all there. “Having those three things in the same place was very rare, but good for us.”

En route to the hotel, McKeogh and his partner had pulled up on their cellphones photos of the Ames Stradivarius taken before it was stolen, along with its precise measurements to the millimeter. Now, appraiser Injeian measured, calling out the numbers, and they matched exactly.

That was a Friday. McKeogh remembers the following Monday “because I can say that I have probably never been so excited to come to work as I was [that] morning, simply because I couldn’t wait to see the instrument again.” He knew, as well, that further authentication of the violin was necessary, and it came, amazingly, in that first call to me.

“You mentioned little pieces of pearl on the tuning pegs, and I went back to the violin as I was speaking to you and noticed those features, which is very unique,” McKeogh says. A third confirmation would come later from another appraiser.

So, the mystery was solved. All these years, the violin had been in the same guilty hands.

Appraiser Injeian says Johnson had tried to preserve the instrument himself, but knowing that any reputable restorer or dealer would recognize it, he had not had the violin properly maintained by the expert craftsmen who do this kind of work.

“It’s a real miracle that it didn’t take any major hits or cracks or anything of that nature,” Injeian says.

And so on Thursday, at the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, there will be a formal ceremony turning the violin over to the Totenberg sisters — Nina, Jill and Amy — under an agreement filed in federal court. (You can hear more on the ceremony on Thursday’s All Things Considered, and we will update this post after the event in New York. UPDATE: The All Things Considered story is here.)

“It’s nice to return something of great value to a family or a country or an institution,” says U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, adding that these “are moments of celebration that we don’t have that often here.”

Of course, Stradivarius owners are really just guardians of these great artistic instruments. We will sell the Ames Strad — now perhaps the Ames-Totenberg Stradivarius. We will make sure it is in the hands of another virtuoso violinist. And once again, the beautiful, brilliant and throaty voice of that long-stilled violin will thrill audiences in concert halls around the world.

Stolen with my father’s violin was a bow made by the Stradivarius of bow-makers, Francois Tourte. Special Agent McKeogh is “hopeful” that in light of this story, someone with information about the bow will come forward. In addition, there is another stolen Stradivarius out there, the Davidoff-Morini Strad, taken from the apartment of violinist Erica Morini in 1995. Anyone with information about either the bow or the violin is asked to contact the New York office of the FBI at 212-384-5000 and ask for agent McKeogh.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit

WDAV to Produce NPR World of Opera

WDAV 89.9 Classical Public Radio announced today that as of January 18, 2010, the station will take over production of National Public Radio’s World of Opera, keeping in place NPR’s successful creative team of host Lisa Simeone and producer Bruce Scott. WDAV General Manager Benjamin K. Roe is the new executive producer. The show will continue to be marketed and distributed by NPR.


WDAV 89.9 Presents “A Carolina Christmas” – Our First Nationally Syndicated Concert Broadcast

Combine a Grammy-winning singer/songwriter with a Grammy-winning radio producer. Add plenty of outstanding regional talent, and put it all on stage at one of the nation’s most beautiful historic homes. You have the perfect recipe for a new holiday musical tradition from WDAV 89.9 and National Public Radio – A Carolina Christmas from Biltmore Estate with Kathy Mattea. This festive celebration of holiday music – both sacred and traditional – airs on WDAV 89.9 and this Saturday, November 28 at 3 p.m. and across the nation on NPR stations throughout this holiday season.


The Hoover Dam

We left the Grand Canyon for Vegas—300 miles at temps up to 114 at the Hoover Dam and no AC in my dam (sic) car. The prospect of enlivening music was a salve, for distraction if nothing else, the icey bandana on my neck long dessicated. I cued my iPod roadtrip playlist, and finally, finally, on the third rendition of the Eagles, “Already Gone,” it dawned on me that I had somehow mashed a button that played the same friggin’ song over and over, and I did not know which button. I was booking it down the macadam trying to beat the heat (ha!), and my Pioneer instruction manual was in the trunk. So I reverted once again to my aforementioned and simple-minded “Caliente/F.M.” vintage 1989 compilation cassette, since there was no radio I could find out in the tumbleweeds and dust devils. By the time I got off I-40 at Seligman, Ariz., for an 85-mile detour on old Route 66, I was tired of even that personal favorite playlist.
Happily, Seligman is a comfy, kitschy little 66 town with vintage 50s and 60s melodies—even some 30s and 40s Depression-era folk music—wafting from the kind-hearted ticky-tack “cafés” and auto garages-cum-souvenir stores.


Internet Radio Gets a Bit of a Reprieve

Yesterday, we finally got some news that was good regarding the copyright royalty rates to be paid by Internet radio stations. The Copyright Royalty Board decided to extend the deadline for paying the rates until July 15, 2007. The original due date was May 15, 2007.
As noted in my earlier post, the new rates (which are retroactive to January 2006) are much higher than previous rates and will prove disastrous for many webcasters. Quite a few operations will find they owe many times more than their actual revenue and will have to stop streaming on the Internet. The loss of variety of programming that we now enjoy on the Web will necessarily follow, and that’s bad for everyone; the artists, the record companies, the webcasters, and most of all the public.
Fortunately, the deadline extension gives democracy a chance to work. The “Internet Radio Equality Act” (H.R. 2060), which undoes the Copyright Royalty Board’s new rate structure, and puts in place safeguards for non-commercial webcasters, will have more time to wind its way through the legislative process and possibly even pass before July 15th.
To find out more, read my earlier blog post. If you want to weigh in on the issue, contact your congressman and ask him or her to co-sponsor H.R. 2060.