Don Shirley: Three Historic Recordings

During the 1960s, African-American jazz pianist and composer Don Shirley (1927-2013) left the comfort of his spacious, eclectically-appointed apartment above New York’s Carnegie Hall and undertook a series of concert tours which included the segregated, Jim Crow-era south. He hoped to break down the barriers of prejudice through music. Following the hostile treatment of Nat King Cole in Alabama a few years earlier, Shirley hired New York nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga as his …

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Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” Prelude: Currents in E-Flat Major

Das Rheingold, the first opera in Richard Wagner’s mythic Ring Cycle, begins as a distant, barely-audible rumble in the dark, murky depths of the orchestra. Entering one by one in cool, overlapping sonic currents, eight horns announce the Ring‘s expansive, rising “nature” motive. It’s a gradual, primal awakening- 136 bars and over four minutes of pure, unending E-flat major. We’re forced to confront the power and majesty of the basic, fundamental elements of …

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Five Great Songs by Jule Styne

Today marks the 113th anniversary of the birth of the great American songwriter, Jule Styne (1905-1994). Born in London, Styne grew up in Chicago, the son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants. He was a child prodigy pianist, performing with the orchestras of Chicago and Detroit before age ten. Later, he played jazz, withdrawing from the concert stage because of the limitations of his small hands. He created the scores for some of the Broadway …

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Remembering Nancy Wilson

The legendary American jazz singer Nancy Wilson passed away earlier this month on December 13. She was 81. The three-time Grammy-winning artist, who described herself as a “song stylist,” is remembered for ballads like “Guess Who I Saw Today” (1960) and “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” (1964). Over the course of a career that spanned six decades, she accepted occasional acting roles and frequently crossed over into the R&B and pop categories. Years ago, I had the …

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New Release: Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil

Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, was received with ambivalence when it premiered at Saint Petersburg’s Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in December, 1892. Now, over a century later, E.T.A Hoffmann’s heroic story of death and rebirth comes alive on ballet stages around the world as a staple of the holiday season. It’s a piece filled with haunting melancholy and dreamy, shimmering magic. All of this can be heard in Tchaikovsky’s music, with its exotic, soaring melodies and lush, colorful orchestration. In …

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Change Ringing: St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol

Queen Elizabeth I described it as “the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England.”  This Christmas Eve we go to the over 900-year-old St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, UK to hear a spectacular example of English change ringing. The church’s fifteen bells are ordered in a series of seemingly-endless mathematical permutations, known as “changes.” This clip will give you an idea of the precision required in this type of bell ringing. With today’s …

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Benjamin Britten’s “A Hymn to the Virgin”: VOCES8

Benjamin Britten composed A Hymn to the Virgin at the age of 16 while a student at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, England. Yet there is nothing remotely youthful or immature about this brief work for unaccompanied double chorus. It unfolds with a sense of haunting mystery and quiet lament that seems timeless. The anonymous text, dating from around 1300, comes from the Oxford Book of English Verse. In an expansive, antiphonal dialogue, the main chorus sings in …

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