Melbourne Mass in B Minor

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St.  John Church, Melbourne

St. John Church, Melbourne

It has been called “The Greatest Musical Artwork of All Times and All Nations,” an opus summum, and a crowning musical achievement of the Baroque era. And yet, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor (BWV 232) remains an enigmatic work, a towering monument of Western art music that in its length and scope far outstrips anything else that had been previously written in the genre.

A work of sublime beauty, intense emotion and perfect construction, and one that continues to fascinate scholars, performers and audiences alike, at its time of creation it had no explicit purpose or performance context.

For a long time, musicologists thought the Mass in B minor had been written entirely during the 1730s, when Bach had already completed the majority of his church cantatas and was turning his attention to other types of vocal music. In fact, the work in its final form dates from the last years of Bach’s life, around 1748-49, but it had a far longer gestation, for much of the piece is made up of independently-conceived compositions that were then later revised and incorporated into the final work.

For example, the Sanctus (the third of the four major parts of the complete Mass) began life as a separate setting for use in the Leipzig churches on Christmas Day 1724. Another of these individual pieces was a Missa (the first of the parts) that Bach composed in 1733 for presentation in Dresden to the new Elector of Saxony. His dedication letter to the Elector referred to it as a “small work of that science which I have achieved in musique.”

Exactly why Bach decided to expand the Missa into a complete mass setting remains uncertain. He had long been fascinated with Latin church music and had already written several short pieces in the genre, but there would have been no place for a complete Latin mass setting in a Lutheran church service, and, in any case, the sheer length of the final composition (over two hours) would have made a complete performance in a liturgical context very unlikely.

Did Bach perhaps view the Mass in B minor as a kind of personal artistic legacy? Certainly, part of the appeal for him seems to have been that the text is not tied to an expressly Lutheran doctrine, but rather transcends theological boundaries. This made the Mass a truly “universal” sacred work that could speak to the widest possible audience.

In its final twenty-seven movement form, the Mass in B minor represents a complete synthesis of all the major kinds of vocal writing of Bach’s day. It encompasses music for every type of solo voice and complex choral textures for four to eight voices; it showcases the Baroque orchestra to its maximum effect and features representative solo instruments of all kinds; and it spans a vast range of musical styles and compositional techniques, from old-style strict part-writing to the most modern musical language. It draws on music written over a period of more than twenty-five years and therefore represents in many ways the pinnacle and summation of Bach’s formidable vocal output.

On 7, 8 and 9 August 2014, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will perform Bach’s Mass in B minor. In anticipation of this event, and in honor of the visit to Australia by one of the world’s most renowned Bach scholars, Professor Christoph Wolff, the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (in association with the Australian Bach Society and St. John Church) will be hosting a symposium titled “Bach Studies in Australia,” as part of the Melbourne Bach Forum. The symposium will showcase the very best of Bach scholarship from across the country and feature concert performances of music by Bach, his family and his contemporaries. The highlight will be a public lecture on 25 July 2014, given by Professor Wolff, on “Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig,” where he will address general aspects regarding this period in Bach’s life, including a context for the Mass in B minor, this most universal and celebrated of all Bach’s vocal works.

The Canberra Times

Taylor Swift’s Values

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Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift

Where will the music industry be in twenty years, thirty years, fifty years?

Before I tell you my thoughts on the matter, you should know that you’re reading the opinion of an enthusiastic optimist: one of the few living souls in the music industry who still believes that the music industry is not dying . . . it’s just coming alive.

There are many (many) people who predict the downfall of music sales and the irrelevancy of the album as an economic entity. I am not one of them. In my opinion, the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace. Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently.

In recent years, you’ve probably read the articles about major recording artists who have decided to practically give their music away, for this promotion or that exclusive deal. My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet . . . is that they all realize their worth and ask for it.

Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.

In mentioning album sales, I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow through the heart or have made them feel strong or allowed them to feel like they really aren’t alone in feeling so alone. It isn’t as easy today as it was twenty years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album, and, as artists, that should challenge and motivate us.

There are always going to be those artists who break through on an emotional level and end up in people’s lives forever. The way I see it, fans view music the way they view their relationships. Some music is just for fun, a passing fling (the ones they dance to at clubs and parties for a month while the song is a huge radio hit, that they will soon forget they ever danced to). Some songs and albums represent seasons of our lives, like relationships that we hold dear in our memories but had their time and place in the past.

However, some artists will be like finding “the one.” We will cherish every album they put out until they retire and we will play their music for our children and grandchildren. As an artist, this is the dream bond we hope to establish with our fans. I think the future still holds the possibility for this kind of bond, the one my father has with the Beach Boys and the one my mother has with Carly Simon.

I think forming a bond with fans in the future will come in the form of constantly providing them with the element of surprise. No, I did not say “shock”; I said “surprise.” I believe couples can stay in love for decades if they just continue to surprise each other, so why can’t this love affair exist between an artist and their fans?

In the YouTube generation we live in, I walked out onstage every night of my stadium tour last year knowing almost every fan had already seen the show online. To continue to show them something they had never seen before, I brought out dozens of special guest performers to sing their hits with me. My generation was raised being able to flip channels if we got bored, and we read the last page of the book when we got impatient. We want to be caught off guard, delighted, left in awe. I hope the next generation’s artists will continue to think of inventive ways of keeping their audiences on their toes, as challenging as that might be.

There are a few things I have witnessed becoming obsolete in the past few years, the first being autographs. I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only memento “kids these days” want is a selfie. It’s part of the new currency, which seems to be “how many followers you have on Instagram.”

A friend of mine, who is an actress, told me that when the casting for her recent movie came down to two actresses, the casting director chose the actress with more Twitter followers. I see this becoming a trend in the music industry. For me, this dates back to 2005 when I walked into my first record-label meetings, explaining to them that I had been communicating directly with my fans on this new site called Myspace. In the future, artists will get record deals because they have fans – not the other way around.

Another theme I see fading into the gray is genre distinction. These days, nothing great you hear on the radio seems to come from just one musical influence. The wild, unpredictable fun in making music today is that anything goes. Pop sounds like hip hop; country sounds like rock; rock sounds like soul; and folk sounds like country – and to me, that’s incredible progress. I want to make music that reflects all of my influences, and I think that in the coming decades the idea of genres will become less of a career-defining path and more of an organizational tool.

This moment in music is so exciting because the creative avenues an artist can explore are limitless. In this moment in music, stepping out of your comfort zone is rewarded, and sonic evolution is not only accepted . . . it is celebrated. The only real risk is being too afraid to take a risk at all.

I predict that some things will never change. There will always be an increasing fixation on the private lives of musicians, especially the younger ones. Artists who were at their commercial peak in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s tell me, “It was never this crazy for us back then!” And I suspect I’ll be saying that same thing to younger artists someday (God help them). There continues to be a bad girl vs. good girl/clean-cut vs. sexy debate, and for as long as those labels exist, I just hope there will be contenders on both sides. Everyone needs someone to relate to.

And as for me? I’ll just be sitting back and growing old, watching all of this happen or not happen, all the while trying to maintain a life rooted in this same optimism.

And I’d also like a nice garden.

Taylor SwiftThe Wall Street Journal

The Von Trapps Are Back

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The Von Trapps

The newest von Trapps of Sound of Music fame

A divided staircase in the middle of an elegant entrance hall painted white. Crystal chandeliers, parquet floors, gold brocade-upholstered furniture, views through spacious windows of manicured lawns leading to a lake. And a baker’s half-dozen of children continually popping up to harmonize.

That, of course, is Sound of Music world, first glimpsed in the 1965 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway show, and by now embedded in the brains of most inhabitants of the actual world. The house is the movie studio version of the von Trapp villa near Salzburg, Austria, and the children are the movie studio version of the von Trapp children.

Picture, by contrast, a mostly unfurnished four-bedroom town house in northeast Portland, Oregon. The neighborhood is called Hollywood, which is ironic, because this is real life. The bedrooms are occupied by the real grandchildren of one of the real von Trapp children immortalized in the movie. That would be Kurt, “the incorrigible one,” whose name was actually Werner. The house is unfurnished partly because the four siblings – Sofia (known as Sofi), Melanie, Amanda and August, who range in age from twenty-five down to nineteen – haven’t lived there very long, but mostly because they use the house to rest their heads at night and eat a bowl of cereal in the morning. They spend the rest of their time doing a very Sound of Music-y thing. Singing.

They’ve been singing together since they were mere babes, and doing their public “shtick,” as Sofi calls it, for about thirteen years: most of their lives, that is.

The road to the town house in Holly­wood started with a decision made years ago by the von Trapp kids’ father, Stefan – son of Werner, grandson of Captain von Trapp (otherwise known as Christopher Plummer), step-grandson of Maria (Julie Andrews). He had grown up in Vermont with a bunch of cousins, and ultimately decided the atmosphere and the real and cinematic bloodlines were a bit oppressive. With his wife, Annie, he moved far away – to Kalispell, Montana, where he learned stonemasonry skills, opened a business, and had three girls and a boy. Werner would visit in the summer – to the kids he was always “Opa,” German for “grandpa” – and teach them the Austrian folk songs he had sung as a child. One summer he was too ill to make the trip, and the kids recorded their first homemade CD so he could hear it back in Vermont.

In 2001, the New Age pianist George Winston heard the children sing at a festival in Montana and was impressed enough to have them open for him while he was touring the state. Gradually, they began to get gigs of their own. At the start, their set list consisted of Austrian folk songs and Sound of Music selections. August, who joined his sisters when he was seven, wearing lederhosen to their dirndls, was first soprano.

Stefan had done masonry work for television-series wildlife guru Jack Hanna, who has a house in Montana, and through him became friendly with Wayne Newton, whom the kids knew from the Chevy Chase movie Vegas Vacation. Newton gave them what Amanda calls “amazing advice.”

“It was right when August’s voice was changing,” Melanie says, “and so you asked him –” Sofi picks up the story: “Somehow, I asked him how he went through his voice change. Obviously, he had such a high voice. And he said he just kept singing the high notes and he was able to keep his falsetto.” “It was good advice,” August says, “but man, it was hard. I never knew when my voice would, like explode. It was like a time bomb.”

Touring the country, the siblings began to comprehend the magnitude of the Sound of Music story, and what it meant to people. “After the show, people would come up to us and would be like, ‘I met your grandmother. . . . I heard her sing in this hall fifty years ago,’” Melanie says. “That’s when we started to kind of understand that we were carrying on something.”

“We would hear people say, ‘I saw The Sound of Music when I was six years old, and it made me realize what I was going to do with my life,’” Amanda says. “And then they would thank us for something we almost had nothing to do with. That weight of importance always rested on us. We knew it wasn’t just about ourselves.”

But only recently have they hit the big time. In March, they released a new CD, Dream a Little Dream, and embarked on a twenty-four-city tour, both projects collaborations with the eclectic musical group Pink Martini. The CD features guest appearances by Wayne Newton, Jack Hanna (also a musician), Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains. And, on the Sound of Music songs The Lonely Goatherd and Edelweiss (not real Austrian folk songs, as many think, but Rodgers and Hammerstein concoctions), Charmian Carr, who played Liesl in the film.

It may seem odd, but it’s nonetheless true that the von Trapp family was famous before The Sound of Music. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical opened on Broadway in 1959 and was based on a 1949 book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, by Maria von Trapp. This is the same Maria played by Mary Martin on stage and Julie Andrews on screen, a postulant who was hired by Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp, a widower, as a tutor for one of his children (not a governess for all of them, as in the musical), and ended up marrying him. (That part was true.) As early as 1935, with the encouragement of and under the direction of an Austrian priest, Franz Wasner, Maria and her stepchildren formed a vocal group that performed professionally at the Salzburg Festival; in 1937 they went on a tour of Europe and even made a television appearance on the BBC.

The following year, the Nazis annexed Austria. Because the von Trapps’ former home, the city of Trieste, had become part of Italy, the family possessed Italian passports and used them to get on a train out of the country, eventually settling in the United States. (The musical’s exodus on foot over the mountains is another invention by the librettists, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.) Within the year, accompanied by Father Wasner, they made their first tour of the United States, capped off by a well-received concert in New York’s Town Hall. The New York Times observed, “There was something unusually lovable and appealing about the modest, serious singers of this little family aggregation as they formed a close semicircle about their self-effacing director for their initial offering, the handsome Mme. von Trapp in simple black, and the youthful sisters garbed in black and white Austrian folk costumes enlivened with red ribbons. It was only natural to expect work of exceeding refinement from them, and one was not disappointed in this.”

The family lived for a time in Merion, Pennsylvania, and eventually settled in Vermont. But from the beginning, the Singers – eventually including the three children of Maria and the Captain – spent a good part of the year touring the country, offering audiences in Iowa or New Mexico exotic and ultimately heartwarming sights and sounds. In a typical concert, the family opened with sacred selections, perhaps a Gregorian chant and a Bach piece, then did an instrumental portion (recorders, spinet and viola da gamba), followed by madrigals. After intermission, they changed into their trademark Austrian outfits – dirndls for the girls, lederhosen for the boys – and did a set of Austrian folk songs, a demonstration of crowd-pleasing yodels and finally a selection of international folk songs.

Part of the appeal of the Trapp Family Singers – they judiciously dropped the “von” after settling in the United States – was the contrast they offered to happenings in their native country and neighboring Nazi Germany. The New York Times, reviewing their “picturesque” 1940 holiday Town Hall concert, commented that they “afforded the large audience a glimpse into an Austria, not of storm troopers, but of devout families who sing and make music at home in the evenings.” Feature reporters found they made good copy as well. One 1946 article reported, “In the hotel dining room, the Baroness Maria von Trapp, a tall, strong blue-eyed woman in radiant health, dressed like her daughters and like them, without make-up, firmly pressed our hand, and then introduced us to the Baron, a twinkling-eyed man who looked like Santa Claus with a mustache instead of a beard.”

The tour eventually expanded to as many as one hundred twenty-five performances a year, and according to William Anderson, author of The World of the Trapp Family, became “the most heavily booked attraction in concert history.” He doesn’t cite a source for that assertion, but with their annual tour, RCA Victor recordings, occasional television appearances and Maria’s best-selling memoir, there’s no doubt the von Trapps were a significant cultural institution.

However, by the arrival of the new decade of the ’50s, some of the siblings were marrying and having children and getting into professions like medicine and forestry, making it necessary for non-family ringers to don the dirndls and lederhosen on stage. There was also a sense, among some observers, that the act had worn a little thin. “No matter what they were up to, the Trapps did their work in a tentative, unbending manner – smiling nervously now and then – and the audience, to judge by the applause that followed each number, was pleased by this show of diffidence,” wrote Douglas Watt of the New Yorker, reviewing the 1951 Christmas concert. Watt wasn’t charmed. “There was so much gemütlichkeit in the air that it began to grow stuffy, and I left before they got to the carols.”

The group finally disbanded after a farewell tour, featuring In stiller Nacht [by Brahms], in the beginning of 1956. By that time the Captain and one of his daughters had died. Some of the siblings dispersed around the country and the world, but Maria continued to operate a ski lodge in Stowe, Vermont, and many of her children and their families were nearby. (The lodge is still operated by her son Johannes and his family. Maria died in 1987, and the last of her stepchildren, also named Maria, in 2014.)

A German film based on the family story was released in 1956, and eventually caught the attention of musical comedy star Mary Martin. She decided it would be a perfect vehicle – with Martin herself playing Maria, of course, and a score consisting of the Trapp family repertoire. She brought on a producer, Leland Hayward, commissioned the team of Lindsay and Crouse to write a script, and approached Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (with whom she’d had a spectacular success in South Pacific) to come up with a single original song. Rodgers describes his reaction in his autobiography, Musical Stages: “If they wanted to do a play using the actual music the Trapps sang, fine, but why invite a clash of styles by simply adding one new song? Why not a fresh score? When I suggested this to Leland and Mary they said they’d love to have a new score, but only if Oscar and I wrote it.”

Write it they did. The show opened on Broadway in 1959 and was a smash hit, despite some critical carping about its sentimentality. The London production the following year was an even bigger success, and even bigger than that was the Julie Andrews film. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture and grossed a whopping $126 million at the box office.

The film has never really ended its run, of course, being presented in recent years in karaoke-style sing-alongs where audience members dress as characters and even song lyrics. (A brown paper package tied up in string is a popular choice.) In December 2013, NBC presented a live television version of the musical with Carrie Underwood as Maria. Although the reviews were, as always, mixed, the production got fabulous ratings.

The consensus among the family Trapp was that the musical got the heart of the story right, though there was and is some grumbling about that escape hike, the changing of names (and sometimes gender) of some of the siblings, and, especially, the depiction of the warm, Santa Claus-like Captain as a patrician meanie.

But none of that mattered. The film catapulted the family from renown to full-blown celebrity, and there was nothing they could do about it. From time to time, the Trapp Family Singers got out the dirndls and lederhosen and put on a reunion concert. But there was no follow-up, as everyone by that time had demanding lives.

It would not be until the 1970s that the music coursing through the von Trapp DNA would again get expressed in a concerted manner. First came Werner’s daughter Elisabeth von Trapp, who strapped a guitar on her back as a teenager and ever since has traveled the country as a folk singer.

Then came her Montana nieces and nephew. The touring and performing was fun for a while, but about four years ago, with the sisters at college age, they decided, as Sofi says, “to stop singing, and go to school, and kind of pursue our own dreams.” They each enrolled in a different college, and August started attending high school in Chicago. “It was our first time being with kids our own age,” Amanda says. (The siblings were home-schooled.) Then, in 2010, they got a call from a producer from Oprah, asking if they would appear on a special Sound of Music forty-fifth anniversary show. And how could they turn down a chance to sing Edelweiss with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and the rest of the surviving cast from the film?

After the show aired, there were offers from all around the world. Again, the touring started. Again, it began to wear on them. One of the last concerts on their contract came in December 2011: singing with the Oregon Symphony at Portland’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.

“The symphony called up and said, ‘We’ve got the von Trapps,’” recalls Thomas Lauderdale, the founder and leader of Pink Martini, who is a lifelong Portland resident. “‘Can they be on stage with you?’ And it was, you know, I mean, I just sort of flipped out, I was so excited.”

Lauderdale, who is forty-three, has spiked white-blond hair and usually wears a bow tie, had grown up as a big fan of The Sound of Music. In fact, Pink Martini performed The Lonely Goatherd, a yodeling showcase from the musical, at the second concert it ever did. When he met the von Trapps, he found himself impressed by more than their bloodlines and their pipes. “They were paying a different kind of attention than most people are ever paying,” he said. “I think it has to do with them not having watched television as kids. There’s a certain look in people who haven’t grown up watching TV. There’s a different gaze.”

Lauderdale’s perception was on target. “No, we didn’t have a TV,” Melanie says. She’s the second oldest, at twenty-four, and, like her brother and sisters, personable, fresh-faced, modest and nice. “Our dad didn’t grow up watching it, and neither of our parents were into the whole TV thing. I mean, we watched Bill Nye the Science Guy once in a while.” Later, it emerges that none of the siblings has heard of Pee-wee Herman.

Lauderdale thought their sound was terrific, too. “The way they sing comes from the way they’ve grown up together, been in the same room together all these years,” he says. “I don’t think that exists anywhere in the world, this combination of talent, experience, family history and parents with the wisdom not to park them in front of televisions. It was an amazing thing to behold.”

Then, in April 2012, Lauderdale asked them to join Pink Martini for a symphony show in Indianapolis. It was there that the idea of making an album together began to develop. “It was kind of the second time we’d really hung out with Thomas,” Amanda says, “and he slid the sheet music for Dream a Little Dream over across the table towards me. He had no way of knowing it, but that song was my lullaby growing up.”

Lauderdale had the notion that August would strum the ukulele on the song, a Tin Pan Alley standard from the early ’30s. The only trouble was, August had never played the ukulele. “At first, it was really difficult,” he says. “But eventually you just keep at it, and your fingers mold into getting used to it.”

Dream a Little Dream, with Amanda on lead vocal, Thomas on uke and Sofi on melodica, is the title track of the disc. In Stiller Nacht is on it. The rest of the lineup emerged by inspiration and serendipity. “I asked a lot of questions,” Lauderdale says. “‘Who all do you like? Who do you listen to? Who would you love to work with?’ At the top of the list was the Chieftains.” It turns out that Paddy Moloney’s venerable Irish group once shared management with Pink Martini, and the siblings journeyed to Dublin to collaborate with them on Thunder, one of three haunting New-Agey songs composed by August on the CD. (“My hope in reality,” says the lyric, “comes flowing from my dreams.”) There’s a cover of the ABBA song Fernando, Hushabye Mountain from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and carefully curated songs from China, Japan, Israel, France and Rwanda.

And how could there be a von Trapp album without including any songs from The Sound of Music? In fact, Dream a Little Dream has two, The Lonely Goatherd and Edelweiss, and a guest vocalist on both is Charmian Carr, the original “sixteen going on seventeen” Liesl. Not long after making the film, Carr moved from acting to a career as a decorator, but she never stopped participating in Sound of Music events. At a 2000 singalong at the Hollywood Bowl, she met Lauderdale. While making Dream a Little Dream, he invited Carr to participate and she accepted without hesitation. Not only did Carr feel the von Trapps’ sound was “exquisite,” she says from her home in Encino, California, but she formed a quick and deep bond. “I told them they felt like my own children,” she says.

In Portland, Amanda von Trapp says that singing with Carr was one of the high points of making the record. “Here are five people in the studio who would have no connection otherwise,” she says. “It’s so distant, but so close. She represented this story that our grandparents went through. And everybody loves this story, and her role especially, being Liesl.”

The granddaughter of the brother of the person Carr played on screen pauses. “It was a little surreal,” she adds.

Ben YagodaSmithsonian Magazine

Widerstehe doch der Sünde

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Adam by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Detail from Adam by Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca. 1530

It is likely that the solo cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54) was performed for the first time three hundred years ago on 15 July 1714 in the Palace Church in Weimar. While the 1711 text by Georg Christian Lehms was originally intended for use on the third Sunday in Lent, Alfred Dürr suggests that Bach realized that its exhortations against sin applied equally well to one of the readings for the seventh Sunday after Trinity, clearing the way for its appearance in July.

The twelve-minute cantata is written in three movements for an alto soloist accompanied by two oboes, two violins, two violas and basso continuo.

Some reconstructions of Bach’s St. Mark Passion (BWV 247) include portions of Widerstehe doch der Sünde, and in 1962 Glenn Gould recorded the cantata’s continuo part on a “harpsipiano,” a grand piano modified to sound somewhat like a harpsichord. The lyrical writing and modest scoring of the cantata have inspired numerous arrangements of the work, including a concerto for English horn.

Berlin Academy Wins Bach Medal

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The Bach Medal of the City of Leipzig

The Bach Medal of the City of Leipzig

As part of the 2014 Bachfest Leipzig, the Bach Medal of the City of Leipzig, made of Meissen porcelain, was awarded to the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Since this award has previously gone only to outstanding soloists and conductors, this was the first time that an ensemble specializing in eighteenth-century performance practice has been honored with the Bach Medal.

During the presentation ceremony on 20 June 2014 in the Altes Rathaus in Leipzig, the Mayor of Leipzig, Burkhard Jung, and the director of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, Peter Wollny, declared that, “The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin includes in its core repertoire the transition from Baroque to Classical, thereby encompassing the musical generations of J. S. Bach, his sons and beyond, all the way to Mozart. Scarcely any other ensemble would be better suited to this honor on the occasion of the three-hundredth birthday of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, . . . and the individual accomplishments of each ensemble member, along with their unique ability to play so well together, . . . are noted with greatest appreciation.”

The jury consisted of leading representatives of the Leipzig’s musical life: Prof. Dr. Dr. hc Christoph Wolff, Dr. Elmar Weingarten and choirmaster Prof. Georg Christoph Biller, the director of the Leipzig Opera, Prof. Ulf Schirmer, the music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, and the Rector of the University of Music and Theatre in Leipzig, Prof. Robert Ehrlich.

Founded in 1982 in the former East Berlin by members of the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin was one of the very few instrumental ensembles of the German Democratic Republic that pursued historical performance practice, a discipline that was generally dismissed as being nothing more than a “Western fad.” Today, the ensemble belongs to the world elite of chamber orchestras. Concerts and recordings of the orchestra have set interpretive standards for the works of Bach, and the Academy is regularly featured at major musical centers throughout the world.

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

A Guitar God Lives

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Yngwie J. Malmsteen

Yngwie Malmsteen

A household name in heavy-metal shredding, guitarist Yngwie J. Malmsteen describes himself as stubborn and dictatorial. “I’m very set in my ways and not necessarily in a bad manner,” he said over breakfast. “I know what I want and I go for it.” Though his style of music isn’t as popular as it once was, he presses on with renewed vigor, his titanic talent intact.

Now on tour with Guitar Gods, a mind-warping, blizzard-of-notes-per-bar bill that also features guitarists Bumblefoot – Ron Thal‘s stage name – and Gary Hoey, Mr. Malmsteen, 50, is getting ready for the release in August of a live DVD and CD, recorded in Orlando and Tampa, respectively.

Ranked with Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen as innovators of electric rock guitar, the Stockholm native became obsessed with the instrument after he received a copy of Deep Purple‘s Fireball for his eighth birthday. But though he admired the band’s guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, young Yngwie was even more intrigued by the work of Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks, who made references in his compositions to J. S. Bach. In fact, it was a recording of a Niccolò Paganini composition that helped Mr. Malmsteen find his musical voice. Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 in A minor would eventually become a model for his style, which relies heavily on clearly articulated arpeggios and dazzling speed. “Niccolò Paganini and Johann Sebastian Bach with a Strat and a stack of Marshalls” is how Mr. Malmsteen described his approach last week, referring to his Fender Stratocaster guitar and Marshall amplifiers, his preferred gear.

He arrived in Los Angeles in 1983, recruited by a producer who placed him in a group that was beneath his talents. “It was the most banal band I could be with, but I wanted to be on a piece of vinyl,” Mr. Malmsteen said. “It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I knew I was going somewhere.” He released his first solo album a year later.

With ear-splitting, classically influenced shredding as his trademark, Mr. Malmsteen quickly became a star – and lived the lifestyle that went with it: In 1987, while driving drunk, he plowed into a tree near his home in Woodland Hills, CA, and was in a coma for a week.

“A lot of people pine for the ’80s,” he said. “I don’t.” No longer a drinker, Mr. Malmsteen’s game these days is tennis. Framed by right-angle mutton chops, his moon face was bright, his smile engaging. Vitamins went down with his scrambled eggs.

With the arrival of grunge music, the ’90s were a bleak period for gonzo guitarists such as Mr. Malmsteen, who had no US record deal and relied on touring in Japan and South America to keep going. Late in the decade, he composed Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra in E-flat minor, op. 1. Many rock artists have played with full orchestras, but Mr. Malmsteen said his concerto was the first to be composed in a classical mode with electric guitar as the solo instrument.

The recording industry in a shambles, his career received an unexpected boost via Guitar Hero and Rock Band, video games that featured his challenging music. Footage of his wild performances were viewed by millions on YouTube – the kind of exposure, Mr. Malmsteen said, that was impossible when the industry was in control. Resistant initially to new recording techniques, he eventually used Pro Tools software on his home-studio computer to record his most recent album, Spellbound (2012), which he released on his own label.

“In a bizarre way it’s like I was going back to when I was seventeen years old,” he said of life in rock’s new model. “I had no expectation of radio airplay, no anything else.” As a teen in Stockholm, he explained, “I would play a seventeen-minute guitar solo, sing four bars, and do another seventeen-minute guitar solo. That was the greatest means of expression then. I love to have that feeling.”

At the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ, a wall of Marshalls at his back, Mr. Malmsteen jumped and karate-kicked, spun the guitar around his back, flung picks at the rabid audience and discharged a torrent of fully articulated thirty-second notes – all during Rising Force, his first number. Later, he offered the Bach-influenced Dreaming (Tell Me) on acoustic guitar before returning to his Strat for metal’s roar. His relentless attack seemed effortless, and never did he seem to mind that he was playing for far fewer people than when he filled stadiums in his glory days.

“I don’t know what the carrot in front of me is,” he said the morning before the show. “I take criticism and praise the same way. Of course, everyone likes to hear good things, but I don’t change. I know what I’m doing.”

Jim FusilliThe Wall Street Journal

Chicago Critics Question Cultural Crossover

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Anna Holmström

Anna Holmström in Chicago

I first saw Flying Bach four years ago in the modern interior of the Neue Nationalgalerie [in Berlin]. Breakdancing to J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-93) seemed to me then, and now, as completely unexpected and, at the same time, completely right.

The intricacy and control of the dancers follows the interlocking lines of the preludes and fugues. At times, each b-boy assumes a voice, and we are provided with a visual depiction of Bach’s artistry – one dancer beginning the melody, which is imitated and followed, in counterpoint, by the others, until the gyrating, flexing and spinning create a textured choreographed whole. The director Christoph Hagel, leans in, live and unflustered, on the piano, the next piece is taken over by the harpsichord, or by electronic remixes of Bach’s remarkable work.

Flying Bach does not only represent a delectable collision of styles – the frisson of seeing breakdance to Baroque music instead of hip-hop – but also represents a challenge to or reappropriation of German high culture.

The Flying Steps were founded in 1993 by Vartan Bassil and Kadir “Amigo” Memis. Vartan, like many of his fellow b-boys, comes from an immigrant family (he was born in Lebanon), and their academy finds itself in deepest SO36, Berlin’s center for both alternative and conservative immigrant, mostly Turkish, life. I am not the only one to observe how Europe’s immigrants have turned to breakdancing – looking to African-American models – in order to express their subaltern urban identities. For these Berlin b-boys from the ghetto then to graft this inheritance onto the symbol of German musical high culture represents a sweet little genealogy for those cultural studies folks out there.

[Last month] Flying Bach finally took their production to the United States. They have already brought the performance to Japan, Australia, Canada, the Eurovision Song Contest, but this is the first time they show in the United States – the home of b-boying. And so I was extremely interested to see how this Berlin export – this strange hybrid which is very much a product of the stewing cultural milieus of Kreuzberg and Neukölln – would fare in Chicago’s prime venue, The Civic Opera House.

There have been a few changes from the original cast. The fabulous and inspirational Yui Kawaguchi, a staple of the indie Berlin dance scene, left the company recently, along with a number of the Flying Steps b-boys. The sole female lead position has been taken over by the very capable Swedish dancer Anna Holmström. I have seen this new production and recognize that I am perhaps too loyal to the old cast to feel it has quite the same energy. Each time I see Flying Bach, it appears even slicker (perhaps the influence of the sponsorship of a big drinks company, Red Bull) and rehearsed. Or have I simply lost the spontaneity of the first viewing? I am looking for the intimacy, experimentation and novelty of that first experience in Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Berlin museum and find it cannot be repeated. Now, there is a big booming sound system and elaborately high-tech lighting.

The Chicago press’s reaction to the tour to the Midwestern metropolis focused on different disappointments. The Chicago Sun-Times said everything you’d expect them to say about such an internationally successful Berlin export (“electrifying”, an “enjoyable mashup”). It was surprising and gratifying to see them quote the front-page dedication of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (“to the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study”), thinking cleverly about the b-boys as the “musical youth.” But some reflection on the most interesting cultural crossovers in this piece were lost. It was simply entertainment.

This goes too for the more upmarket Chicago Tribune. The Tribune, however, had other, serious, problems with the piece, in particular a moment in the performance when b-boy Nordine-Dany Grimah slaps Anna Holmström melodramatically across the face. Having spoken to one of the dancers, I learned that this moment of violence (which the Tribune calls “at best, a problematic message to send out to the many young women in this youthful audience and, at worse, misogynistic”) was an innovation of the b-boys themselves who wanted to explore violence against women and correct that violence through movement, showing the alienation of the culprit and then reconciliation. To my mind, this mini-story in the production is cut from the same cloth as a soap opera, a convention out of place in a piece carried by the music and dancing alone. For the Tribune, it turned out to be a politically-incorrect no no. Is it that you can’t slap women on stage, even to then explore the consequences (was there no trigger warning? does it get too close to the reality of how often women are actually slapped by brutal men?)? The reviewer says Holmström is outnumbered seven to one and this represents a “glaring inequality.” American audiences are inured to a great many depictions of violence, but apparently not this one.

I suppose I had great hopes that reviewers in Chicago would understand at some level what it means for boys from Berlin’s “hood” to be dancing to Bach and that they would get beyond the home-grown docility of political correctness, but I guess I was asking for too much. This is not to say Americans don’t understand Bach or don’t understand breakdancing. They get both, but perhaps not together in the context of Germany’s integration debates. For Flying Bach to be more than just entertainment – to be understood for its political significance, as it storms the castle of German high culture – perhaps it shouldn’t be for export.

Joseph PearsonThe Needle

Federico Babina Creates Archimusic

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Suite in G Major (BWV 1007)

Suite in G Major (BWV 1007)

The latest poster series from Italian architect and illustrator Federico Babina takes twenty-seven songs, from the likes of David Bowie, Amy Winehouse, Elvis Presley and Mozart, and transforms them into cartoon buildings. The series, entitled “Archimusic,” combines the music and lyrics of each song with the artwork featured on the original single and album covers, creating a series of fantasy designs that feature stacked shipping containers, towering chimneys and sculptural staircases.

“I do not have a favorite kind of music – I think there is always a perfect kind of music for an exact time,” said Babina. “I chose types of music and musicians very different from each other. Each has its own peculiarities. The idea was to tell a story starting from the soundtrack, listen to the music and imagine the shapes hidden behind it. The parallels between architecture and music are diverse and extraordinary. They have a common mathematical order which regulates the forms and the rhythm.”

Babina previously worked on a similar project named “Archist,” transforming the works of famous artists into buildings. With Archimusic, the process becomes less literal, as the illustrator created shapes based on the mood and feelings created by each song. “Archist has been a figurative process, while Archimusic is more intangible and abstract,” he said. “It is based on feelings and emotions that only the music is able to awaken. Use your ears instead of eyes to conceive shapes.”

Dezeen

Red Hot + Bach

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RedhotcropRed Hot + Bach, from Sony Music Masterworks, is charting a new pathway into the musical universe of Johann Sebastian Bach. Through the collaboration of performers, producers, DJs and artists from around the world and across the spectrum of contemporary music, different facets of Bach’s centuries-old masterpieces are transformed with fresh energy and modern virtuosity.

The creators of Red Hot + Bach embrace Bach as a living artistic force, as real and as vital today as he was when he lived (1685-1750). They range across nineteen freely-imagined tracks from mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile (Nickel Creek, The Punch Brothers), singer/songwriters Gabriel Kahane and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), jazz legend Ron Carter, DJ/producer King Britt and the Icelandic band amiina, to imaginative classical artists such as the Kronos Quartet, composer Max Richter, violinist Daniel Hope and organ virtuoso Cameron Carpenter.

Red Hot, a not-for-profit production company, has been shaking up great music in just this way for twenty-five years with projects that celebrate the musical geniuses as diverse as Antônio Carlos Jobim (Red Hot + Rio), Cole Porter (Red Hot + Blue), a meeting of jazz and hip-hop artists (Red Hot + Cool), Duke Ellington (Red Hot + Indigo), and Fela Kuti (Red Hot + Riot). The work of Red Hot continues to serve a social purpose: raising awareness and money in the ongoing fight to stop AIDS.

Red Hot + Bach is available both in a special expanded digital edition and as an iPad app designed to lead you to discover new ways to interact with the timeless energy and beauty of Bach’s music.

PR Newswire

My Kids Don’t Know Who Bach Is

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Turner and Lilly

Turner and Lilly

My kids are your typical everyday kids. They get grumpy if you wake them up too early, they watch movies, play with their friends, learn new things, and even whine to try and get their way. They are six and seven.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing your kids to others, and even easier when it comes to homeschooling and what everyone else is doing. I’ve been victim to this. I let myself get pulled in after reading another blog where so and so was learning two languages that year and doing a unit on famous composers. I thought, “Wow, my kids need to get going and not get behind.” So I started researching what I would teach them. Then reality hit. My kids are six and seven, they don’t need to know who Bach is right now. They have their entire lives ahead of them.

So I stopped researching. We enjoy learning a ton of things around here, but you won’t catch me trying to cram information about Mozart to my six year old (unless she asks). We do listen to classical music in the car, though.

It’s fun to read blogs and see what others are up to, but don’t get too caught up in it. You can’t teach your child everything! You don’t know everything, no one knows everything. And even if you cover the Great Depression, who knows how much they will remember in a few years. Everyone has gaps in their education and knowledge, you have to decide what is important to you (and your state mandates) then go from there to decide what to teach your kids (and maybe ask them what they want to learn about).

So, if you ask my daughter or son who Bach is right now, they won’t have a clue. Give them a few years and ask again. However, Turner can talk your ear off about BMX, car makes and engines, Minecraft and Legos. Lilly can go on about ballet terms and knows more facts about animals than I probably do!

What about your kids?  What are they really interested in right now?

Turly HomeSchool

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