Category Archives: WRTI Arts Desk

When Prokofiev and Stalin Died the Same Day

[First published 29 Feb 2016 in the WRTI Arts Desk, reprinted here by permission.]

March 5th is the anniversary of a remarkable day in music history. Sergei Prokofiev died, but almost unnoticed, because it was the same day that Josef Stalin, the tyrant who had caused so much pain in the composer’s life, also died. WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at this ironic coincidence.

ProkofievStampWhen deaths coincide, fame will have its say. Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died on the same day, but one greatly overshadowed the other. Milton Berle and Billy Wilder both died the same day, but the news was all about a third death, Dudley Moore’s. Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis died on a November day in 1963, but most people didn’t learn of it because it was the very day John F. Kennedy was killed.

And few knew on March 5th, 1953 that Sergei Prokofiev had died, because Josef Stalin died the same day. Prokofiev had no flowers at his funeral; every flower in Moscow went to Stalin’s.

The famous Prokofiev had returned to Russia from the West in the 1930s, courted by the Soviets. It was a deal with the devil, though, and Prokofiev paid dearly. He received his house and his commissions, but was hounded and shoved aside as he cranked out cantatas praising the regime.

So Prokofiev paid, and Prokofiev died, and when his nemesis—perhaps the greatest monster of the 20th century—died hours later, fame had its say.

But only for a time.

For Stalin is just the name of a dead monster. As long as there is music, though, the name of Prokofiev will never die.

From Prokofiev’s score to the Eisenstein film Ivan the Terrible:

99 Years Ago, What Monumental Event Happened in Jazz?

[First published 22 Feb 2016 in WRTI’s Arts Desk and reprinted by permission.]

This week it’s the 99th anniversary of an important first for the WRTI family. It happened in South Jersey, and the significance of it extends to this day.

OriginalDixielandJassBandStyles of music change slowly over time, but sometimes there are clear landmarks. In Camden, New Jersey on February 26th, 1917, for the very first time, a clarinet, cornet, trombone, piano, and drum set played a song into something called a recording machine. It helped if the sound was loud, and this group, The Original Dixieland Jass Band, was loud.

The sound traveled down a metal horn to a piece of glass, which vibrated a stylus, cutting a groove into a wax disc. That would serve as the master to stamp out records. Spinning at 78 revolutions per minute on the right machinery, it would play the song for you over and over again.

The process had been used for some years at this Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, most famously with the opera singer Enrico Caruso, But the name of this song was “Livery Stable Blues,” and this was the first jazz recording, ever.

Jazz comes from spirituals, salon music, blues, and ragtime, and was changing even then. Every cornet player would soon switch to trumpet because of a young dynamo named Louis Armstrong. This Dixieland song, called “fox-trot” on the record, would soon fade away.

But recorded February 26th and released on March 7th, “Livery Stable Blues” is a landmark in jazz.

The 2016 Classical GRAMMY Awards, Part 2

 [First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk, 8 Feb 2016. Reprinted by permission.]

The recording industry gives out its GRAMMY Awards on February 15th; WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at the classical categories.

Best Opera Recording Nominee

Boston Baroque’s Monteverdi, in the Best Opera category

This year’s classical GRAMMYs may have more than a few surprises. Best Orchestral includes the grand old name of Boston along with powerhouses Seattle and Pittsburgh. Also making strong statements are the symphonies of New Zealand and Oregon.

Boston’s stamp is all over the Opera category. The Boston Early Music Festival and Boston Baroque enter the fray with former Boston Symphony director Seiji Ozawa, leading the Saito Kinen Orchestra.

Last year’s winner Conspirare is in the Choral category again with music by Pablo Neruda, up against Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Monteverdi, and Stephen Paulus. The music of this well-loved American composer, who passed away in 2014, has nominations in three different categories.

New music fills three of the five Chamber Music slots, and in the Contemporary category Paulus is listed with Gerald Barry, Andrew Norman, Joan Tower, and Julia Wolfe.

Production values in Classical Compendium pit new music against Handel and early 20th-century Jewish stage and film music.

Puccini and Christopher Rouse rub shoulders with Beethoven, Joyce DiDonato, and Cecilia Bartoli in Solo Vocal. In Solo Instrumental, Daniil Trifonov, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, is up against Augustin Hadelich, and, again, Seattle. But watch for Ursula Oppens and Fredric Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, the Mt. Everest of 20th-century piano variations.


Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano in Best Solo Vocal category

Best Orchestral Performance
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4
Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
Label: Reference Recordings

Dutilleux: Métaboles; L’Arbre Des Songes; Symphony No. 2, ‘Le Double’
Ludovic Morlot, conductor (Seattle Symphony)
Label: Seattle Symphony Media

Shostakovich: Under Stalin’s Shadow – Symphony No. 10
Andris Nelsons, conductor (Boston Symphony Orchestra)
Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Spirit of the American Range
Carlos Kalmar, conductor (The Oregon Symphony)
Label: Pentatone

Zhou Long & Chen Yi: Symphony ‘Humen 1839’
Darrell Ang, conductor (New Zealand Symphony Orchestra)
Label: Naxos
Back to top

Best Opera Recording
Janáček: Jenůfa
Donald Runnicles, conductor (Orchestra & Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin)
Label: Arthaus

Monteverdi: Il Ritorno D’Ulisse in Patria
Martin Pearlman, conductor; Fernando Guimarães & Jennifer Rivera; Thomas C. Moore, producer (Boston Baroque)
Label: Linn Records

Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Diana Damrau, Paul Schweinester & Rolando Villazón; Sid McLauchlan, producer (Chamber Orchestra Of Europe)
Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Ravel: L’Enfant Et Les Sortilèges; Shéhérazade
Seiji Ozawa, conductor; Isabel Leonard; Dominic Fyfe, producer (Saito Kinen Orchestra; SKF Matsumoto Chorus & SKF Matsumoto Children’s Chorus)
Label: Decca

Steffani: Niobe, Regina Di Tebe
Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, conductors; Karina Gauvin & Philippe Jaroussky; Renate Wolter-Seevers, producer (Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra)
Label: Erato
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Best Choral Performance
Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
Bernard Haitink, conductor; Peter Dijkstra, chorus master (Anton Barachovsky, Genia Kühmeier, Elisabeth Kulman, Hanno Müller-Brachmann & Mark Padmore; Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Chor Des Bayerischen Rundfunks)
Label: BR Klassik

Monteverdi: Vespers of 1610
Harry Christophers, conductor (Jeremy Budd, Grace Davidson, Ben Davies, Mark Dobell, Eamonn Dougan & Charlotte Mobbs; The Sixteen)
Label: Coro

Pablo Neruda – The Poet Sings
Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (James K. Bass, Laura Mercado-Wright, Eric Neuville & Lauren Snouffer; Faith DeBow & Stephen Redfield; Conspirare)
Label: Harmonia Mundi

Paulus: Far In The Heavens
Eric Holtan, conductor (Sara Fraker, Matthew Goinz, Thea Lobo, Owen McIntosh, Kathryn Mueller & Christine Vivona; True Concord Orchestra; True Concord Voices)
Label: Reference Recordings

Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil
Charles Bruffy, conductor (Paul Davidson, Frank Fleschner, Toby Vaughn Kidd, Bryan Pinkall, Julia Scozzafava, Bryan Taylor & Joseph Warner; Kansas City Chorale & Phoenix Chorale)
Label: Chandos
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Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance
Brahms: The Piano Trios
Tanja Tetzlaff, Christian Tetzlaff & Lars Vogt
Label: Ondine

Eighth Blackbird
Label: Cedille Records

Flaherty: Airdancing for Toy Piano, Piano & Electronics
Nadia Shpachenko & Genevieve Feiwen Lee
Track from: Woman At The New Piano
Label: Reference Recordings

Brad Wells & Roomful of Teeth
Label: New Amsterdam Records

Shostakovich: Piano Quintet & String Quartet No. 2
Takács Quartet & Marc-André Hamelin
Label: Hyperion
Back to top

Best Classical Instrumental Solo
Dutilleux: Violin Concerto, L’Arbre Des Songes
Augustin Hadelich; Ludovic Morlot, conductor (Seattle Symphony)
Track from: Dutilleux: Métaboles; L’Arbre Des Songes; Symphony No. 2, ‘Le Double’
Label: Seattle Symphony Media

Grieg & Moszkowski: Piano Concertos
Joseph Moog; Nicholas Milton, conductor (Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern)
Label: Onyx Classics

Mozart: Keyboard Music, Vol. 7
Kristian Bezuidenhout
Label: Harmonia Mnudi

Rachmaninov Variations
Daniil Trifonov (The Philadelphia Orchestra)
Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Ursula Oppens (Jerome Lowenthal)
Label: Cedille Records

Best Classical Solo Vocal Album
Beethoven: An Die Ferne Geliebte; Haydn: English Songs; Mozart: Masonic Cantata
Mark Padmore; Kristian Bezuidenhout, accompanist
Label: Harmonia Mundi

Joyce & Tony – Live from Wigmore Hall
Joyce DiDonato; Antonio Pappano, accompanist
Label: Erato

Nessun Dorma – The Puccini Album
Jonas Kaufmann; Antonio Pappano, conductor (Kristīne Opolais, Antonio Pirozzi & Massimo Simeoli; Coro Dell’Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia; Orchestra Dell’Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia)
Label: Sony Classical

Rouse: Seeing; Kabir Padavali
Talise Trevigne; David Alan Miller, conductor (Orion Weiss; Albany Symphony)
Label: Naxos

St. Petersburg
Cecilia Bartoli; Diego Fasolis, conductor (I Barocchisti)
Label: Decca

Best Classical Compendium
As Dreams Fall Apart – The Golden Age of Jewish Stage and Film Music (1925-1955)
New Budapest Orpheum Society; Jim Ginsburg, producer
Label: Cedille Records

Ask Your Mama
George Manahan, conductor; Judith Sherman, producer
Label: Avie Records

Handel: L’Allegro, Il Penseroso Ed Il Moderato, 1740
Paul McCreesh, conductor; Nicholas Parker, producer
Label: Signum Classics

Paulus: Three Places of Enlightenment; Veil of Tears & Grand Concerto
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer
Label: Naxos

Woman at the New Piano
Nadia Shpachenko; Marina A. Ledin & Victor Ledin, producers
Label: Reference Recordings

Best Contemporary Classical Composition
Barry: The Importance of Being Earnest
Gerald Barry, composer (Thomas Adès, Barbara Hannigan, Katalin Károlyi, Hilary Summers, Peter Tantsits & Birmingham Contemporary Music Group)
Label: NMC Recordings

Norman: Play
Andrew Norman, composer (Gil Rose & Boston Modern Orchestra Project)
Track from: Norman: Play
Label: BMOP/Sound

Paulus: Prayers & Remembrances
Stephen Paulus, composer (Eric Holtan, True Concord Voices & Orchestra)
Track from: Paulus: Far In The Heavens
Label: Reference Recordings

Tower: Stroke
Joan Tower, composer (Giancarlo Guerrero, Cho-Liang Lin & Nashville Symphony)
Track from: Tower: Violin Concerto; Stroke; Chamber Dance
Label: Naxos

Wolfe: Anthracite Fields
Julia Wolfe, composer (Julian Wachner, Choir of Trinity Wall Street & Bang on a Can All-Stars)
Label: Cantaloupe Music

Who Are the 2016 Classical GRAMMY Award Nominees?

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk, 1 Feb 2016. Reprinted by permission.]

The recording industry gives out the GRAMMY Awards in two weeks, and WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at the classical categories, which include some local names.


Daniil Trifonov, Grammy nominee for Best Classical Instrumental Soloist

On February 15th the 58th Grammy Awards will honor “artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence.” Ten categories are reserved for classical music, including Producer of the Year and Best Engineered Album awards.

Others are for Orchestral Performance, Opera, Choral, Chamber Music and Small Ensemble, Instrumental and Vocal Solos, Classical Compendium, and Contemporary Composition.

Grammy nominees range from early-music luminaries Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs, and Philippe Jaroussky to contemporary groups Eighth Blackbird and Roomful of Teeth.

Classical stars Cecilia Bartoli, Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, Jonas Kaufmann, and Christian Tetzlaff are up for awards as well as lesser-known but brilliant artists such as Gil Rose, Chen Yi, and Frederic Rzewski.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin appears twice, conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and also leading the Philadelphia Orchestra with Daniil Trifonov in the Instrumental Solo category. Former longtime Philadelphia resident Marc-André Hamelin enters the lists in the Chamber Music category.

Why would locals be pulling for New York’s Trinity Wall Street Choir and the Bang On A Can All-Stars? Well, they recorded Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, and it was the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia that commissioned and premiered it last year, garnering it a Pulitzer.

Next week we’ll look deeper into the Grammy categories.

The Metamorphosis of Paul Hindemith


Paul Hindemith

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 18 Jan 2016.]

It’s an odd name for an odd work that almost wasn’t written. But it premiered 72 years ago this week, and as WRTI’s Kile Smith reports, this piece by Paul Hindemith is one of the most popular orchestral works of the 20th century.

Choreographer Léonide Massine approached Paul Hindemith in 1940 with a new project. They had already worked together, so this time, why not create a ballet on music by the 19th-century composer Carl Maria von Weber? Hindemith liked it, but when he played him some ideas, Massine couldn’t hear the Weber. For his part, Hindemith saw some of the dancer’s latest work and didn’t take to it.

So the project fell through. Hindemith kept working on the music, though, wanting to create an American orchestral showpiece, as he and his wife had just settled in the U.S. He finished it in 1943 and the New York Philharmonic premiered it in 1944.

The Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber is a mouthful of a title, but it is accurate. It’s more than an arrangement, and something other than variations, either of which would have suited Massine. Hindemith actually stays fairly close to the piano duet melodies he uses—usually—but he transforms everything else. Sometimes Weber is clearly heard and sometimes not, but Hindemith creates orchestral magic.

It was an immediate success. Hindemith became an American citizen in 1946, and one of the great 20th-century composers, with no small help from the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

The Greatness of Hansel and Gretel

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk, 21 December 2015.]


Hänsel und Gretel; Alexander Zick (1845 – 1907)

A young mother wanted to sing to her children. She wrote poems based on a story by the Brothers Grimm and asked her brother to set them to music. He did, but then kept working with them, and in two years those songs turned into Hansel and Gretel.

The 1893 fairy-tale opera by Engelbert Humperdinck was a hit at its premiere. It immediately swept from Germany through Europe, and into England and the United States. Its popularity has never wavered.

Hansel and Gretel premiered on a December 23rd, and although Christmas doesn’t appear in the opera, Christmas-time most often sees performances of this. It’s a morality tale and a witch story, but it’s really about two things: children and great tunes.

The music ranges from flighty to folksy to scary to heart-rending, but it’s all brilliant, all colorful, and all deeply emotional. Humperdinck shatters the idea of children’s entertainment as, well, childish, and the idea that serious art has to be oh-so-serious.

Hansel and Gretel completely engages everyone. If artistic greatness is measured as emotional reach across people and countries and centuries—and age groups—then here’s a vote that one of the greatest of all operas has to be Hansel and Gretel.

Frank Sinatra: Jazz His Way

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 4 Dec 2015.]

Frank Sinatra was born 100 years ago on December 12th, and there have been any number of stars in the entertainment world during that century. But WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at what truly sets him apart from all the rest.

FrankOver all the music entertainers of the last hundred years, over the stars and the superstars, there remains one name: Frank Sinatra. Some were incandescent for a time; some innovated; some influenced; some were multi-talented; some sold, and sell, millions of records. But Sinatra had all this, and something more.

Frank Sinatra reinvented the entertainment world. He created a continental divide in the pop music industry by bringing jazz out of itself and into popular music, and making it stick.

Instead of being the singer with the band, he made himself into an instrumentalist—of the voice. He bent rhythms, he shaped time, he colored his voice, he even changed the words if he wanted to. And, he could swing anything.

But is it too much to call Frank Sinatra a jazz singer? Well, not according to jazz musicians. They recognize his professionalism and control, his musicality and poetry. He owned the stage, the studio, and the screen, but no voice exposed the emotion of a song like the care-worn and burnished baritone of Frank Sinatra.

For five decades he reigned as Chairman of the Board. Everybody felt his impact, whether they knew it or not. Over all the stars and all the superstars there is simply before Frank and after Frank.

Here’s a good article on what jazz musicians have said about Frank Sinatra and jazz. And here’s one from the BBC on why he’s still the best.