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Performers: April 2008 Archives

A Revolutionary Orchestra

Parkdale Revolutionary Orchestra by Susan Carey

Bold approach breathes new life into classical music

There's nothing so off-the-wall that somebody hasn't thought of it

By Nigel Hannaford
Calgary Herald

Mitzi's Sister is a small club in the Parkdale area of Toronto. Home cooking, a stage, it holds 150 people. Small as these things go. But, it was there just over three years ago, that Parkdale Revolutionary Orchestra first took the stage.

Big moment in the history of music? Too early to say.

However, a few weeks ago, this space dealt with the sort of music that can pay its own way, with no top-ups from the Canada Council. I jested that if classical music was to rescue itself from its socio-economic isolation – its audience shrinks, as it ages – it would have to rebrand itself as something risque, to be enjoyed in seedy little rock-clubs where it's best to sit near an exit, with one's back to the wall. Only when it could make it without a grant, could it once more be considered an expression of contemporary culture.

But, irony is hard these days. There's nothing so off-the-wall that somebody else hasn't thought of it, or done it.

Read more about this at the Calgary Herald website:

The Sexy Side of Classical Music

Violinist Janine Jansen by Mitch Jenkins

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra: A Sex Appeal

By Eddie Silva
Playbill Arts

Let's talk about sex – and classical music.

A couple of years ago the writer Greg Sandow, who discusses the state and fate of classical music on, alerted his readers to the emergence of an audacious new feature in MUSO, a magazine based in the UK that writes about the classical music world the way Spin writes about rock & roll. In MUSO's online version, Sandow heralded, is a section called "G Spot," which features a list of fans picks for sexiest soloists, with pictures and commentary.

For example, violinist Joshua Bell is described to be "As American as apple pie and just as tasty." Pianist Hélène Grimaud is praised for her "gamine gaze." Room is left for praise of the artists' musicianship, "supreme skills across an extraordinary range of repertoire" and "steely pianistic strength," but the message MUSO spreads is that having one gift does not belie the other. And, more importantly, classical can be hot.

Classical music is declared dead, usually with deep regret, by some astute and erudite critic on a regular basis. And just as it is declared dead, it is passionately declared alive and well by another astute and erudite critic – usually the next day. Death and resurrection is a great theme of religion and literature, but a steady dose of it can be emotionally depleting, especially if it happens to be your art form being compared to Lazarus. Within the chronicling of the death-life continuum of classical music, at least one fact is inarguable: classical music's presence near the center of popular culture has diminished considerably over (at least) the last two decades.

Read more about this at the Playbill Arts website:

Growing Pains at the Joffrey

From inside Joffrey Tower, Chicago

Joffrey carries on steps of change

By Sid Smith
Chicago Tribune

The Joffrey Ballet of late seems simultaneously blessed and besieged, an organization in transition or trouble, depending on the day or the headline.

In September, the company moves into gleaming, new $23 million headquarters, with third- and fourth-floor studio glass walls overlooking the corner of State and Randolph Streets. Not only will this facility finally unite administrators and artists under one roof, but the skyscraper will trumpet the company's name – the Joffrey Tower – and offer daily views of the dancers at work.

The tricky hunt for a successor to octogenarian co-founder Gerald Arpino went off smoothly last fall, a process that ripped apart top dance troupes elsewhere. Ashley Wheater emerged as the board's unanimous choice, welcomed by Arpino with a warm public salute.

But in February came news that Maia Wilkins, 38, the fluid, soulful lead ballerina, won't be back next season, her contract not renewed, a move that struck some as abrupt.

Read more about this at the Chicago Tribune website:,1,4799307.story

Redefining the Possibilities

Christopher O'Riley

Pianist-arranger Christopher O'Riley has redefined the possibilities of classical music

By Diane Peterson
The Press Democrat

It's been a dozen years since pianist Christopher O'Riley last performed with the Santa Rosa Symphony.

In the interim, the multitalented Midwesterner has continued to evolve, using his early experience in jazz and rock as a springboard to new heights as a classical artist.

From his high-profile role as the host of "From the Top" – a public radio show centered on young musicians – to his groundbreaking arrangements of songs by the Brit alt-rock band Radiohead, O'Riley, 51, has earned a reputation for innovation coupled with a refreshing lack of pretense.

This weekend, he will tackle Béla Bartók's Concerto No. 1 with the Santa Rosa Symphony. The concerto looks back to the Viennese School and to Brahms, whose Symphony No. 1 will round out the second half of the program conducted by Music Director Bruno Ferrandis.

O'Riley likes to perform pieces he feels passionate about. Under his nimble fingers and carefully crafted arrangements, an eclectic stream of pop music has migrated to the classical music stage over the years.

"It's really sort of a selfish enterprise," he said in a phone interview from northeast Ohio, where he spends most of his time. "It's always been about the song … a couple of Cocteau Twin songs, a Stephen Sondheim song. Things just take me over."

At the same time, the virtuoso has championed new music from within the classical world, premiering eclectic works by Richard Danielpour and Aaron Jay Kernis while recording well-known gems by Beethoven, Ravel and Scriabin.

Read more about this, including an interview, at the The Press Democrat website:

Death by Oboe


How acoustic instruments torment their players

By Jan Swafford

Years ago, I heard a lovely evening of South Indian music that involved a double-headed drum called a mridangam. Afterward, somebody asked its player what the stuff he'd been smearing on one of his drum heads throughout the performance was.

"Cream of Rice," he replied.

"You mean, like in the supermarket?"

"Indeed, yes."

Turns out, breakfast cereal is just the thing to keep the head of your mridangam smooth and supple. While pop musicians and classical composers alike are always going on about computer software, acoustic instruments and the people who play them are a far more cultish affair. They're still doing things by hand in traditional, sometimes outlandish, sometimes messy ways.

I spent some years of supposedly being a musician, but the beginning of my education in the low-tech and faintly mystical endeavor of creating acoustic instruments came when I interviewed a well-known stringed-instrument maker. When he told me his instruments were based on close study of Strads, I asked, Why not use modern technology to duplicate every millimeter of, say, a Stradivarius violin, chemically analyze the varnish and duplicate it, et voilà: great violin. He sighed, having heard that one before. "You know, every piece of wood is different," he said. Every piece of the six kinds of aged wood in a violin has to be shaped according to its particular resonance, elasticity, and function. And the varnish? "Don't get me started," he said.

Read more about this at the Slate website:

Overcoming Early Success

Conrad Tao

The Tao of Early Musical Success

By Barbara Jepson
Wall Street Journal

The stereotypical musical prodigy has remarkable musical memory, brilliant technique, and a prematurely shortened career. Pianist Conrad Tao, who gave a winning performance with the Russian National Orchestra here recently at the Festival of the Arts BOCA, possesses the first two characteristics in good measure. One hopes he will avoid the third, joining the ranks of such successful former prodigies as the 52-year-old cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the 65-year-old conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim.

But who knows? The 13-year-old Mr. Tao, a student at the Pre-College Division of The Juilliard School in New York, may decide to chuck music altogether. Or he may become overexposed by the age of 25 – one of the risks of turning "pro" earlier than most. By that time, later-blooming peers will have come into their own artistically, providing new faces for concert presenters to book, and the next wave of precocious youngsters will be nipping at his heels.

So why expose young musical phenoms to the marketplace just as they enter the more vulnerable adolescent years? In a field overcrowded with keyboard players, says his teacher, Yoheved ("Veda") Kaplinsky, head of the piano department at Juilliard, there are two ways for artists to stand out. "One is to win an international competition," she says. "It doesn't guarantee anything, but it gives you an entrée. The other is to start out as a prodigy and make your name that way."

Read more about this at the Wall Street Journal website:

Have Stick, Will Travel

William Barton

A breath of fresh air for the classical tradition

By Harriet Cunningham
Sydney Morning Herald

The Sydney Symphony is learning a new work. The rhythms are complex, and notes fly out in all directions. Conductor Richard Gill, in his best headmaster voice, stops the musicians, points out the key underlying beats, barks out a bar number and raises his baton. And there, almost miraculously, the music starts to emerge from the morass, the opposing riffs meshing into a fascinating wall of sound.

Alongside the conductor, looking remarkably unflappable, sits soloist and joint composer William Barton. The work, Kalkadungu, was commissioned for the orchestra by Maggie Gray and Roger Allen; scored for orchestra with didgeridoo, electric guitar and vocals (all three performed by Barton).

Most significantly, Kalkadungu is a collaboration between two musicians, the Mount Isa-born Barton and the white Australian composer Matthew Hindson, bringing ancient Australian culture face to face with the Western classical tradition.

Hindson, who lectures in composition at the University of Sydney, is an old hand at writing for orchestra, which is why this project presented such a tantalising challenge.

Read more about this at the Sydney Morning Herald website: