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In-Studio: Matt Herskowitz Trio with Philippe Quint Bring Jazz to Bach

Bach has long proved irresistible to artists drawn to reimagining his music through a contemporary prism. Mahler and Busoni transcribed his works, and Leopold Stokowski orchestrated them. More recently, Bach has been arranged for banjo, accordion, jazz trumpet, string quartet, and even theremin.

The pianist Matt Herskowitz, no stranger to straddling the borders between jazz, classical and global styles, came to the WQXR performance studio with his jazz trio, plus two violinists from the classical world: Philippe Quint and Lara St. John. They performed three of his jazz-inflected arrangements of Bach's work, starting with the prelude to the Cello Suite No. 1.

Quint, Herskowitz and his trio (featuring bassist Mat Fieldes and drummer David Rozenblatt) have joined forces for a recording called Bach XXI, featuring the pianist's arrangements of eight Bach favorites. Speaking with host Terrance McKnight, Herskowitz said that Bach's music can be molded to jazz because of its formal construction. "Bach's got one idea and builds upon that," said Herskowitz. "He doesn't just abandon an idea and go to something else. This makes it very fertile ground for arranging."

While Herskowitz has explored Bach in various settings over the years (including an arrangement from the Well-Tempered Clavier for the film "The Triplets of Belleville"), Quint admits that he is a relative newcomer to jazz. His childhood in the Soviet Union, he says, was "unbelievably conservative and strictly classical, where improvisation was not part of the vocabulary." But upon moving to the U.S. in 1991, he bought his first CD, a recording of John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things." After more than two decades of playing with orchestras and in recitals, he decided it was time to revisit his love of jazz.

"I like to be outside of my comfort zone," said Quint. "Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it's a disaster." Below is the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.

Joining the musicians in the final piece was the violinist Lara St. John. She has devoted much of her career to traditional readings of Bach (over several albums, going back to her 1996 debut). But she grew up in Canada listening to Celtic music, tango, old-time fiddling and Stéphane Grappelli albums (her next recording, called "Shiksa," contains music from the Jewish Diaspora).

"Philippe and I are yin and yang," she said. "He comes from a very straight-laced conservative background and I'm basically renegade, D.I.Y. background. So I've never been inside a box so I don't know what the outside is." The two violinists find common ground in Herskowitz's freewheeling arrangement of Bach's Double Concerto. Watch the performance below and listen to the full session at the top of this page.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Irene Trudel; Interview: Terrance McKnight; Text & Production: Brian Wise

In-Studio: Alina Ibragimova Performs Bach and Ysaÿe

The Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova in recent years has developed a following in Europe, especially in the U.K., where she studied and came of age. She appears poised to have a bigger following in New York, too, after her recent performances at the Mostly Mozart Festival and in the studio at WQXR. She came to the WQXR performance studio to present two pieces, starting with Eugène Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 3. Watch the video below and listen to the full segment at the top of this page.

This past June, Ibragimova, 29, released a recording of Ysaÿe's six violin sonatas, known as some of the most treacherous solo works in the repertoire. They are portraits, of a sort, of six violinists whom the composer knew in the 1920s: Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, Georges Enescu, Fritz Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom and Manual Quiroga. "You hear the personalities," said Ibragimova. "They feel like proper little dedications."

Ibragimova arrived at the station early one August morning after having performed a late-night (10 pm) recital at Lincoln Center's Kaplan Penthouse—one of at least two such performances this summer, another being at London's Royal Albert Hall in July. The violinist believes the late shift helps put audiences in a more contemplative mindset for listening. "I think the atmosphere changes for the time of day," she said. "People listen differently."

For her second performance, Ibragimova offered the Largo from J.S. Bach's Solo Violin Sonata No. 3.

Ibragimova's still-young career is notable for the sheer breadth of her repertoire interests. She has also formed an all-female string quartet called Chiaroscuro that uses period instruments, though she herself opts for an unorthodox approach to equipment, changing strings, pitch and bows on her (comparably modern) 1780 Anselmo Bellosio violin. "Whilst it works, I find it's not ideal," she said. "Now I'm going to try a different violin to use with the quartet just so I don't have to put my violin through this all the time."

When she isn't touring, Ibragimova lives in Greenwich, England with her husband, the Guardian music critic Tom Service. The couple married in the spring, having first met when he interviewed her. She says it isn't difficult having a critic around who is constantly evaluating music. And there are perks: "There are so many books now at home. It's great. He knows all the opus numbers."

Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Irene Trudel; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon; Text & Production: Brian Wise




In-Studio: Ignat Solzhenitsyn and Hsin-Yun Huang Play Soviet-Era Sonatas

If your name is Solzhenitsyn and your concert program is devoted to the music of Soviet Russia, questions inevitably arise about the meaning of your repertoire choices.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the pianist, conductor and son of Russia's Nobel Prize-winning writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, came to WQXR recently with the violist Hsin-Yun Huang, to perform Soviet-era sonatas by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. When asked whether the program was intended as a commentary on modern-day Russia, given its widely-reported curbs on press and artistic freedom, Solzhenitsyn spoke carefully but emphatically.

"Music this great always transcends the bounds of its time and place of creation," he said. "During the Cold War, there was no doubt in my mind that the only real bridge between America and the Soviet Union was culture. To the extent that today unfortunately gives us a whiff of that time, music is the best way to remind what holds us together."

Solzhenitsyn knows a lot about the dreadful history of the 20th century through the tribulations of his late father, who spent eight years in Soviet labor camps after World War II. He grew up in Vermont when his father moved there with his family in 1976, after being exiled from the Soviet Union. He has built a career as both a pianist and conductor, and is currently principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.

Huang, who organized this program (it was repeated days later at SubCulture), grew up in Taiwan and England, and is now a viola professor at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music. The pair began with the second movement of Shostakovich's Viola Sonata, a work completed just weeks before his death in 1975.

Huang observes that Shostakovich, like Brahms, who wrote two works for viola near the end of his life, was particularly drawn to the "humanity" of her instrument. "There is something to the humanity of being from within [the orchestra texture]," she noted. "You can lead from within but you don't have to draw attention to yourself. There's that aspect of the personality of the instrument that I feel I identify with very much."

In this clip, Solzhenitsyn speaks further about the "big questions" asked by Shostakovich, who suffered from the personal persecution of Stalin:

Huang and Solzhenitsyn met some 25 years ago, then teenaged students at the Marlboro Music Festival, and they have kept up their friendship and occasional musical partnership since. Both now wear multiple hats in their careers, with Solzhenitsyn also actively promoting the legacy of his father (who died in 2008), through readings, publishing and translations of his work. In the below video, he performs the second movement of Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 8 (1944).

"It's a work that is very scary – with a capital "s" – in its outer movements," the pianist said. "But this middle movement to me seems unrelated. To me it's kind of a respite from the terror of war but one that does not result in any succor, in any amelioration, in any resolution. It's just the sweet memory that is gone no sooner than it's spoken."

Video: Amy Pearl (camera) & Kim Nowacki (editing); Audio: Irene Trudel; Production & Interview: Brian Wise

In-Studio: Matt Haimovitz & Christopher O'Riley Play Beethoven & Rachmaninoff

The cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O'Riley are quick to emphasize that their recent venture into Baroque period instruments isn't some fusty or antiquated pursuit. The duo's new album, "Beethoven, Period," was recorded at Skywalker Ranch, film director George Lucas's famous studio complex in Northern California. Instead of sheet music they played from iPads. Their Seattle launch concert took place at the Tractor Tavern, a rock club.

The experience with very old instruments also forced them to rethink their approach to Beethoven's music. "All of the sudden, the relation between the cello and the piano is completely different," Haimovitz tells host Elliott Forrest. "No longer am I trying to project over the grandeur of a Steinway grand but I'm actually having to make room for the piano."

"You have a lot more leeway in terms of expressivity and color, even in the sense of one note having a shape to it," added O'Riley.

The album features Beethoven's complete works for cello and keyboard, with O'Riley playing on a fortepiano made in 1823 and Haimovitz outfitting his 1710 Goffriller cello with ox-gut strings, a rosewood tailpiece and a period bow.

The duo's performance in the WQXR studio marked a return to (mostly) modern equipment – with a 1940's Steinway and a modern cello bow – but two movements from the Opus 102 No. 2 sonata had a lightness and transparency that suggested time diligently spent in the period-instrument camp.

As Haimovitz notes, the Opus 102 sonatas "offer a window into Beethoven's late period where he's deconstructing all of the ideas of the enlightenment and what he inherited from Haydn and Mozart and really finding his own voice complete." Below is the third movement.

O'Riley and Haimovitz have previously collaborated on "Shuffle. Play. Listen" (2012), an album of pieces by classical composers (Stravinsky, Janacek, Martinu) along pop acts (Radiohead, Cocteau Twins, Arcade Fire), among others. Both artists have sought to blur the lines between pop and classical over the past decade or more – since Haimovitz began playing Bach in bars and clubs in 2002 and O'Riley started arranging arty rock songs around the same time.

Together the duo is planning a future project of pop songs given classical reworkings by contemporary composers. According to O'Riley, it will include John Corigliano's resettings of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell songs; Philip Glass arranging the Velvet Underground; and Gunther Schuller taking on the band Guided by Voices. A recording is expected to be out this fall.

Haimovitz and O'Riley also don't shy away from lush, romantic works as well, as their final performance in the WQXR studio demonstrates: the Andante from Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata, Op. 19. Watch that below and listen to the full segment at the top of this page.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Sound: Irene Trudel; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Elliott Forrest




In-Studio: Kirill Gerstein Plays Liszt's <em>Transcendental Etude No. 12</em>

For most pianists, the day after a major recital typically means rest, relaxation and perhaps, a plane flight. For Kirill Gerstein, it meant Liszt's dauntingly complex Transcendental Etude No. 12

The post-recital adrenalin rush for a substantial recital at Zankel Hall had barely subsided when Gerstein appeared at WQXR. The Russian-born pianist spoke about his new recording of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev concertos, and gave this performance as the cameras were rolling.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Irene Trudel; Production: Brian Wise

The Jake Schepps Quintet's Classical Hoedown

Blame it on Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring or perhaps the ridiculous virtuosity that is characteristic of so much bluegrass playing. In the past decade, growing numbers of classical musicians have been mixing it up with fiddlers, banjo players and mandolin pluckers. Yo-Yo Ma has worked with bluegrass players in the Goat Rodeo Sessions; mandolin wizard Chris Thile has played his own concerto with several American orchestras and released an album of Bach partitas.

The latest group to explore this hybrid is the Jake Schepps Quintet, a string band whose members are steeped in bluegrass spontaneity but whose repertoire – yes, repertoire – is by composers from the modern classical tradition. They include Matt McBane, Marc Mellits, Gyan Riley, and Matt Flinner. Led by Schepps, a Colorado-based banjoist, the group came to WQXR to play three pieces from "Entwined," their debut album.

"Most of the instruments in the string band aren't foreign" to classical composers, said Schepps, in an interview with host Terrance McKnight. "Most classical composers have written for violin, guitar, and bass, and a mandolin is tuned like a violin so it's familiar territory."

The quintet's set began with Flatiron VII: Planetary Tuners by Mellits, a Chicago-based composer whose works have been performed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, among other groups.

Schepps has been at the forefront of melding bluegrass with other genres for several years. He previously recorded an album of Béla Bartok's music arranged for a string band, "An Evening In The Village," and says he wants to play the music of Henry Purcell for a future project. "I fell in love with his three and four-part fantasias," he said. "I love Baroque music and Bach. I'm always curious for places that I can take string band instruments into new terrain." Schepps added that it's a "lateral step" to transfer pieces from Purcell's viola da gambas to the five-string banjo.

The quintet's next selection is the album's title track, by Matt McBane, a Brooklyn violinist and composer who directs the Carlsbad Music Festival in California and whose music has been played by a number of new-music groups.

Flinner, who plays mandolin in the quintet, composed the last selection in the set, called Migrations. He tells McKnight that his challenge "was trying, as a bluegrass musician, to write across that line in a long-form manner. Classical music goes so many different directions these days. One thing that we could use more of is more American roots elements added to that. Bluegrass is a uniquely American art form. It feels like it's getting more respect."

Schepps added: "My hope is that a classical audience will come to find something interesting about bluegrass."

Listen to the full interview and performances at the top of this page.

Jake Schepps Quintet Personnel:

Jake Schepps: five-string banjo
Matt Flinner: mandolin
Ryan Drickey: violin
Jordan Tice: acoustic guitar
Andrew Small: double bass

Videos: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Irene Trudel; Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Terrance McKnight; Production Assistance: Rebecca Stein




Café Concert: The Demenga Brothers and Luka Juhart

Successful sibling duos in music are rare. The stress of rehearsing and being constantly on the road together can derail the happiest collaboration. The best-known sibling partnership in musical history – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his sister Nannerl – didn't last long. He went off to Paris, Vienna and Prague; Nannerl settled down into marriage.

The Swiss cellists Thomas and Patrick Demenga appear to take their collaboration with a more easy-going attitude. Some 35 years since graduating from Juilliard and the Bern Conservatory, respectively, they are still going strong, and performed together in December at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

"We can go on stage and close our eyes and start without even looking at each other," Patrick Demenga told host Jeff Spurgeon. "We are so close in a way musically that we trust – it's one of the most exciting experiences that you can have on stage."

The two cellists, who also have active solo careers, came to the WQXR Café to perform as both a duo and as a trio with the Slovenian accordionist Luka Juhart. Their program combined the music of Bach with two modern works. First up was a transcription of Bach's Sonata in G minor for Gamba and Harpsichord (first movement), with Juhart playing the harpsichord part.

"Normally if you play with harpsichord and continuo," said Thomas Demenga, "you have a very thin sound and you have to be very careful as a cellist not to overpower the harpsichord. In this combination with accordion you have a really full range because he can sustain the lines so you have the full polyphony."

Juhart met the Demenga brothers through a composer friend, which led to some festival dates in Europe. At an appearance in Austria last year, David Finckel, the artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, heard the trio and booked them on his series. Although the accordion is a relative outsider in U.S. chamber music circles, Juhart estimates that there are 30 or 40 college-level training programs in Europe where one can major in the instrument (he teaches at the academy in Ljubljana, Slovenia).

Below, Juhart performs Vinko Globokar’s theatrical solo piece, Dialog über Luft.

While Juhart has sought to explore the outer boundaries of the modernist accordion sound, he has also taken up Baroque works by Rameau, Handel, Scarlatti and Frescobaldi. The Demenga brothers, meanwhile, have been equally versatile, as seen in the last work on their program, an excerpt from Thomas Demenga's Solo per due, which features all manner of bowed and plucked techniques.

"It's a bit jazzy but not really because I don't like classical musicians who try to play jazz," said Thomas Demenga. He notes that one of his classmates and friends at Juilliard was the violinist Nigel Kennedy, known for a freewheeling forays into popular styles. "We played on the streets [of New York] to make money," Demenga recalls. The two musicians also played frisbee in the halls of Juilliard. "People hated us," he said with a laugh.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Chase Culpon; Production & Text: Brian Wise




Watch: American Boychoir Presents Songs of the Season

The American Boychoir has had an eventful 2014 that's included an appearance in a Hollywood feature film, a visit to the Toronto Film Festival and a December East Coast tour that has the group singing Christmas music in seven different languages.

Eleven members of the choir, led by music director Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, visited the WQXR studios early this month to present a selection of carols and songs. The ensemble began with "Mary Had a Baby" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

Based in Plainsboro, NJ, the American Boychoir is one of two accredited boychoir boarding schools the United States, the other being the Saint Thomas Choir School in Manhattan. The group, which marked its 75th anniversary last year, is characterized by a unique sound and facility in a wide range of styles.

Specifically, unlike the famous Vienna Boychoir, on which it was originally patterned, the American Boychoir uses so-called voices-in-transition. "That's what distinguishes us from almost any other boychoir in the world," said Malvar-Ruiz. "It's the fact that we have changing voices still singing with us. It's adding that new color that makes our sound so unique."

This allows the ensemble to fill out SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) choral arrangements (and beyond), as we hear below in these performances. But as 12-year-old chorister Douglas Butler explains, the choir's sound is also the product of hard work, with a school day that stretches from 8 am to 6 pm. "We've tacked an extra three hours at the end of every day for a rehearsal," he says. "We have to learn a lot of music and a lot of times we have to do it quickly" – and by memory. Below: Bach's Domine Deus:

The American Boychoir is the centerpiece of a forthcoming film called "Boychoir." Directed by Academy Award-winning film director Francois Girard, it stars Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates in a feel-good tale about a troubled boy from Texas who attends the American Boychoir School. Due for national release in 2015, it garnered raves at its Sept. 6 premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

"We did three weeks of filming and a few more weeks of recording the soundtrack," said Malvar-Ruiz. The film was shot at Connecticut’s Fairfield University and in New York, but the American Boychoir School's uniforms, logo and identity are to be used. This is just the latest Hollywood encounter for a choir whose performances have been featured in numerous films and commercials since its founding in Columbus, Ohio in 1937.

The choir has been steeped in holiday music throughout its history – at least since its first appearance in a national television broadcast of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, in 1951. Among its performances this month is an appearance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec. 16. Watch their fourth WQXR performance below and listen to the full segment, with host Terrance McKnight's interview, at the top of this page.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Irene Trudel; Production & Text: Brian Wise




Café Concert: Mivos Quartet

Bach's austerely beautiful Art of Fugue has long fascinated musicians who have a taste for the modern and esoteric. The piece, left incomplete at the composer's death, reduced complex counterpoint to its bare essentials – so much that the composer didn't even indicate the instrument (or instruments) for which it was composed.

In fact, most scholars agree that Bach probably intended the piece for the harpsichord, but a few string quartets have made their case for the work too. The New York-based Mivos Quartet recently brought the Contrapunctus XIX from The Art of Fugue to the WQXR Café as part of the station's month-long Backstock festival. In an arrangement by Patrick Higgins, it dramatically calls attention to Bach's advanced sense of time and musical architecture.

Formed in 2008 at the Manhattan School of Music, the Mivos Quartet has put much of its focus and resources into contemporary string quartet repertoire. But early-vintage works also turn up on their programs.

"Maybe it seems random," says violist Victor Lowrie, "but when there's a program of new music, there's often much older music too – skipping the Classical and Romantic periods." Lowrie adds that, when compared to an exacting living composer, there's a great freedom when it comes to interpreting early music.

Like the famous Arditti Quartet before them, Mivos's members are especially drawn to some of the knottier, more abstruse corners of the contemporary repertoire. Their touring calendar presents a who's-who of avant-garde presenters – from Darmstadt to Roulette and seemingly every modern art museum in between. (The quartet appears at Columbia University's Miller Theater on Dec. 9.)

But the Mivos musicians say they're hardly dogmatic about styles or genres. Cellist Mariel Roberts recalled a recent, eye-opening tour in Brazil, where she encountered idioms far removed from American or European traditions (more samba than serialism). It made for an amusing clash of cultures: "On the last night we were there, one composer was like, 'I don't understand why you guys have all of this weird music with no rhythm. In Brazil that's not something you do. Why would you take the soul out of music?'

"I was like 'well, I never thought about it like that.'"

Listen to the full concert above, which also features the fourth movement from Taylor Brook's quartet, El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan, plus commentary from cellist Mariel Roberts and violist Victor Lowrie.

Video: Kim Nowacki; Sound: Edward Haber; Production and Text: Brian Wise




Café Concert: Dublin Guitar Quartet

The four members of the Dublin Guitar Quartet do not specialize in bouncy jigs and reels. Nor do they play in Guinness-soaked pubs. But while the ensemble is certainly connected to its Irish heritage, its repertoire goes further afield, to minimalist and post-minimalist composers including Philip Glass, Arvo Part and Michael Nyman, as well as modern masters like Igor Stravinsky and György Ligeti.

Quartet member Brian Bulger says that the group chose to focus on modern repertoire – frequently in arrangements – as a way to distinguish itself and emphasize its unanimity of sound.

"Guitar quartets traditionally tend to be a collection of soloists," he said. "They sit in a straight line and there would be a lot of virtuosity. We thought it would be a great idea to create a quartet that was the equivalent of a string quartet, sitting in a semi-circle and concentrating on string quartet repertoire and choir repertoire as opposed to the standard repertoire."

The ensemble's Café Concert highlighted this in two pieces by Glass, starting with an arrangement of his String Quartet No. 2, subtitled "Company."


Earlier this year, the Dublin Guitar Quartet released its latest album, a collection of Glass arrangements, which Q2 Music named an Album of the Week. In his review, Daniel Stephen Johnson praised for its "flawless rhythmic unison and tonal blend makes the four instruments sound like one."

Of course, arranging piano or string quartets for guitar can be a logistical stretch: there are questions of how to adjust to the guitar's range and articulations. The Dubliners perform with three six-string instruments along with an eight-string guitar with an extra high string and an extra low string, all designed by Bert Kwakkle, a Dutch guitar maker.

When it comes to capturing the intricate rhythmic churn of Glass's scores, the guitarists say it simply comes with time and hard work. The group was formed in 2001 at the Dublin Conservatory of Music and Drama, and in recent years, they have toured frequently in North America, Europe and South America. Composers are also writing new works for the ensemble. The guitarists say their next frontier lies in electric guitar quartet repertoire, both through existing pieces like those of the composer Steve Reich, and in a commissioned work by the New York composer Michael Gordon, due to premiere in March 2015.

Watch the quartet's performance of Glass's Quartet No. 3, "Mishima," below.

Video: Amy Pearl/Kim Nowacki; Audio: George Wellington; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon; Text/Production: Brian Wise



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