Monday, May 26, 2008

The ASO on GPB, May 29 & June 1

Guest conductor and composer Oliver Knussen leads the Atlanta Symphony in two colorful pieces for children. First up is Ravel's Mother Goose ballet. Then comes the main work, Knussen's own opera Where the Wild Things Are, based on Maurice Sendak's award-winning 1963 book. Soprano Barbara Hannigan stars as the mischievous boy Max; Lucy Shelton is the mother who sends him to bed wthout his supper; and the men of Hudson Shad play the parts of the monstery Wild Things whom Max tames.

In our backstage interview, Knussen talks about how he and Sendak expanded the story into a 40-minute opera, and what language the Wild Things are muttering in (hint: they represent Sendak's relatives), and how the great orchestrators of the turn of the last century inspired his music.

To round out the broadcast, we'll sample the ASO's latest commercial release, A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms, with soprano Twyla Robinson and tenor Mariusz Kwiecin as soloists and music director Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. It was recorded last fall, the same weekend as the concert performance heard previously on GPB, and it's just out from Telarc.

(Next week on GPB, June 5 and 8, Roberto Minczuk returns to lead the ASO in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Cecylia Arzewski performs Khatchaturian's Violin Concerto in her final solo appearance as concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The ASO on GPB, May 22 & 25

"Fallen heroes" is the theme of the February concert we air Memorial Day weekend. Atlanta Symphony music director Robert Spano conducts three American works and a Beethoven symphony, and both he and John Adams speak to us about the music.

John Corigliano's bittersweet Elegy starts the concert. Corigliano originally wrote this for trio, to accompany a love scene in an off-Broadway play between the 40-year-old Helen of Troy (past her ship-launching days) and a man half her age. Corigliano later expanded it for orchestra.

Commissioned half a year after the 9/11 attacks, On the Transmigration of Souls is John Adams' tribute to the survivors. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is joined by the ASO Chorus and by a tape of voices intoning phrases from missing posters, profiles of the deceased, and names of those lost. John Adams wrote the piece to be a "memory space," hushed and respectful, giving you the sense of the presence of thousands - the same feeling one gets on entering a grand cathedral, he hopes. (Watch John Adams' hour-long video interview with Terrance McKnight, former host of The ASO on GPB, about this piece, his violin concerto and other topics.)

You might have heard the next piece in the soundtrack of Platoon or The Elephant Man: the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. Among its other distinctions, Barber's Adagio was named "saddest piece of classical music ever" in a 2004 poll of British radio listeners.

Beethoven's Third Symphony, "Eroica," connects to the "fallen heroes" theme on several levels. Its slow movement is an epic funeral march. But the whole piece also concerns a a hero who had fallen or been diminished in the composer's eyes. Beethoven had planned to dedicate the piece to Napoleon of France - until Napoleon went and proclaimed himself emperor. Then, the story goes, Beethoven tore up the title page in an anti-autocratic huff. The more generic subtitle he gave it instead is "Sinfonia Eroica," or Heroic Symphony.

The ASO is on GPB and this Thursday, May 22 at 8 p.m., repeating Sunday, May 25 at 10 p.m.

(Next week: Oliver Knussen conducts his children's opera Where the Wild Things Are and Ravel's Mother Goose.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The ASO on GPB, May 15 & 18

It's a program of flops: three Russian pieces that bombed at their premieres but have since recovered. On this week's radio broadcast of the ASO on GPB, from a concert recorded in February, powerhouse pianist Yefim Bronfman joins music director Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony to play Sergei Prokofiev's fiendishly difficult Second Piano Concerto. The orchestra also plays Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet (with its contrasting themes for the clashing clans, the somber friar, and the emotional lovers) and Rachmaninoff's First Symphony (which almost ended his career).

What first strikes you when you meet Yefim Bronfman might be his hands. You picture a pianist as having long, slender, elegant fingers. Bronfman's are stocky and thick. They look as if they might stumble over each other at the keyboard. And yet, they're as nimble as any fingers on the concert circuit.

Though he doesn't discernibly hit wrong notes, Bronfman admits Prokofiev's second concerto is tricky. He says he can control up to ten elements at once but this piece has twenty. Just keep practicing, he says, and then rely on luck.

In our interview he also talks about the lively cultural scene and the fantastic fruit in Tashkent, in Soviet Central Asia (Uzbekistan), where he was born.

The ASO is on GPB Thursday at 8 p.m., repeating Sunday night at 10.

The ASO on GPB, May 8 & 11

On this week's GPB broadcast, frequent guest Roberto Abbado conducts the Atlanta Symphony. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy soloes in both Samuel Barber's nostalgic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Mahler's heaven-bound Symphony No. 4. And pianist John O'Conor steps in on short notice to perform Mozart's fifteenth piano concerto. As Roberto Abbado tells us, themes of childhood and innocence and heaven run through the program.