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Daily Classical Music News

Posted: June 5, 2023, 2:17 pm

Blam! Pranks and percussion: Dennis the Menace gets his own concerto – in pictures

For the Beano’s 85th birthday, Colin Currie and the BBC Concert Orchestra celebrated the comic’s beloved prankster and his dog Gnasher in a family concert featuring a specially written percussion work

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Posted: June 4, 2023, 3:04 pm

Kaija Saariaho obituary

Acclaimed composer who conjured shimmering sound worlds in operas such as L’Amour de Loin and Innocence

The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who has died after treatment for brain cancer, aged 70, rose to international fame in the 1980s as a leading, perhaps the leading, musical modernist of her generation.

From her student days onwards, Saariaho’s outlook was adventurous. She spoke of the difficulties in being taken seriously in her student years as a would-be composer who was female; and her works of the early 80s were coolly received in her home country. Her move in 1982 from Finland to Paris to work at Pierre Boulez’s research institute, Ircam (the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), was a clear attempt to immerse herself in computer-assisted composition, live electronics and what had by then become known as spectralism.

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Posted: June 4, 2023, 1:56 pm

Il trovatore review – cruelty played out with anarchic imagination

Royal Opera House, London
Adele Thomas’s visually arresting production mixes levity with tragedy, as fervent orchestral play is matched by expressive singing from a fine cast

‘I’ve lost all reason!” sings Count di Luna halfway through Verdi’s Il trovatore – and fair enough. At this point in Adele Thomas’s production, already seen in Zurich but new to London, reason is a distant memory, chased away by the mayhem of malignity on stage and the fervent music Antonio Pappano is whipping up in the pit.

In its place is a kind of 15th-century sensibility, into which we enter through a curtain formed by the jaws of a monster straight out of a medieval bestiary. What if this far-fetched story of a doomed troubadour were to have been told by a troubadour itself? It would have been tear-jerking, certainly bloodthirsty – but definitely not po-faced: that would risk losing its audience. And so Thomas’s staging, designed by Annemarie Woods, finds ways to be entertaining without diminishing the tragedy. In its anarchic imagination and the precision with which its cruelty and crudity are executed, it feels inspired by Hieronymus Bosch – but with the lovers, Leonora and Manrico, lit as if by Vermeer.

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Posted: June 3, 2023, 11:30 am

The week in classical: Requiem; Jerusalem Quartet review – another five-star fusion from Opera North

Grand theatre, Leeds; Wigmore Hall, London
Sorrowful Mozart meets unstoppable Neo Muyanga in an inspired double bill from Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre. Plus, the sounds of Yiddish cabaret…

What does an audience want? No one can answer that fugitive question with certainty. All the bells and whistles of data research may help, but the only reliable tool is trust built up over decades. Opera North has learned this. Few would have predicted that bonding Italian baroque music to Indian classical, as the company did last year with Orpheus, would prove a perfect fit. Now they have paired Mozart’s Requiem with an uplifting, rhythmic world premiere, After Tears, by the Soweto-born composer Neo Muyanga (b.1974), setting two dance companies loose to express the music’s contrasting moods in twirls, lifts and stomps of every kind. “Smashed it mate,” noted a tweeter straight after opening night. They had.

The link between the two works was grief. (The UK opera season so far, the fruits of lockdown, has not stinted on melancholy.) Calling the double bill Requiem: Journeys of the Soul, Opera North united the company’s chorus and orchestra with the Leeds-based contemporary dance company Phoenix Dance Theatre and Cape Town’s Jazzart Dance Theatre, in harness with Cape Town Opera. There’s no way to shorten that list. All deserve credit. As part of Leeds 2023’s year of culture – “the world in our city, the city in our world” – this was an exemplary collaboration, choreographed and directed by Dane Hurst. The show was not as risky as Orpheus, in which the music itself was fused – here it remained discrete, perceptively conducted by Garry Walker – but the sense of adventure was equally strong.

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Posted: June 3, 2023, 11:00 am

Classical home listening: more Eric Coates from John Wilson; Serse from Harry Bicket; and John Bridcut’s new film

Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic mine more gems by the neglected British composer; the English Concert and a stellar cast excel in Handel’s opera seria; and Bridcut gets to the heart of Michael Tippett

• The triumph as well as the sorrow of Eric Coates (1886-1957) is that his music is familiar – his By the Sleepy Lagoon is used as the Desert Island Discs theme – but few know his name or what else he wrote. His wistful, elegant orchestral writing, full of yearning oboe melodies, uplifting brass fanfares, foot-tapping string tunes, is the epitome of that neglected category: “British light music”. The conductor John Wilson, a dazzling champion of this repertoire, indifferent to fashion but now leading it, has made us listen again.

Eric Coates: Orchestral Works Volume 3 (Chandos), played by the BBC Philharmonic, includes the evocative Cinderella, the well-known Dam Busters March and The Three Elizabeths (1944) – celebrating Queen Elizabeth I, Elizabeth of Glamis and Princess Elizabeth (as she was at the time). The BBC Philharmonic plays with buoyancy and style. The booklet notes are invaluable: a slice of British history compressed into a few well chosen words.

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Posted: June 2, 2023, 8:00 am

Wild Up – Julius Eastman Vol 3: If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? review – a deliriously great tribute

(New Amsterdam Records)
The LA collective Wild Up continue their celebration of the radical US composer with a wild and wonderful selection of minimalist-maximalist delights

Undersung and often ignored during his lifetime, Julius Eastman (1940-1990) is an artist whose influence and reputation seems to have grown exponentially in the decades since his death. Black, gay, impish and provocative – at a time when few contemporary American composers were any of those things – Eastman seems to speak with a certain urgency to 21st-century audiences. The latest of many recent tributes is this mammoth, continuing anthology of his work by the sonically omnivorous LA collective Wild Up. Eastman’s manuscripts are hard to find (many were infamously dumped on the streets when Eastman was evicted from his New York apartment in the late 80s; friends and lovers attest that Eastman even lined his cat litter trays with discarded manuscript pages), so Wild Up have had to diligently unearth scraps of scores and tapes of old performances to complete this seven-volume project.

After the ecstatic minimalism of Vol 1: Femenine and the wonderfully demented Vol 2: Joy Boy comes Vol 3: If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? The 20-minute title track, written in 1977, is the rarest composition here: a series of rising and falling chromatic scales that are slowly mutilated, complete with fiddly orchestrations, background countermelodies, vocal harmonies and instrumental freakouts that serve as a commentary. The 12-minute The Moon’s Silent Modulation, from 1970, is an episodic piece of serialism, featuring brief forays into discordant operatic harmonies, swing-style walking bass, rumbling cellos and two pianos that appear to be a fraction of a tone apart.

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Posted: June 1, 2023, 2:40 pm

Mary Bellamy: Behind the Transparent Surface | classical album of the week

Ensemble Musikfabrik/Elision Ensemble
(Huddersfield Contemporary Records)
Alongside more familiar sounds, Bellamy weaves four instruments invented by Harry Partch to create a strikingly original album

Arcane musical instruments feature prominently in Mary Bellamy’s music, and none are stranger than those required for the piece that gives the title to this collection. Ten years ago at the Ruhrtriennale, Heiner Goebbels mounted a staging of Delusion of the Fury, the only completed “opera” by the American Harry Partch. Using a scale of 43 intervals, his work is scored for the exotically named instruments that Partch himself made to perform his music, and for the Ruhr performances Ensemble Musikfabrik commissioned a new set of those instruments to be made.

In Behind the Transparent Surface, which she composed for Ensemble Musikfabrik in 2020, Bellamy uses four of those inventions – harmonic canon, spoils of war, bass marimba and adapted viola – alongside more familiar sounds, for music that commutes between dense, frantic activity and “transparent” stasis, and between orthodox tuning and Partch’s microtones. There’s another exotic instrument, a new design of bass oboe called the lupophon, in Unfurling, written for the oboist Roger Redgate in 2019, which with its multiphonics and explosive outbursts sometimes seems to create a fusion of an oboe and something very like a saxophone, while the pianist (Philip Thomas) confines himself to playing directly on the piano strings.

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Posted: May 31, 2023, 1:26 pm

Rigoletto review – Verdi’s jester locks horns with the Bullingdon Club

Opera Holland Park, London
In an engaging but problematic staging, the Duke’s court is relocated to interwar Oxford, with Alison Langer’s beautifully sung Gilda a standout

A lot happens before anyone sings a note in Opera Holland Park’s season-opening production of Rigoletto. Bicycles, bells and birdsong set the scene, then a man working quietly at a desk is grabbed by a smartly dressed gang and half drowned. Are we watching a murder? His assailants let him go, laugh as he shakes with fear, and throw him a towel. It’s an initiation rite. The fear that runs through Verdi’s opera is immediately evoked; the life-or-death high stakes, not so much.

This new production is directed by Cecilia Stinton and conducted by Lee Reynolds, who together brought Holland Park audiences a refreshingly unhackneyed, quietly feminist Carmen last year. The corrupt and licentious ducal court in Renaissance Mantua has been transferred to Oxford in the Charleston era, with the party music that Verdi wrote for a small onstage group of players turned into a scratchy old gramophone recording of a 1920s-style dance band, a detail that Reynolds makes work surprisingly convincingly.

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Posted: May 30, 2023, 3:06 pm

Götterdämmerung review – conductor Anthony Negus is the lord of this Ring

Longborough, Moreton-in-Marsh
The conductor’s authority and understanding permeate every bar, but the whole cast excel in this deeply satisfying production

As a reflection of the present state of things, politically and ecologically, Wagner’s final opera of his Ring tetralogy is an uncomfortable reminder that the hunger for power, together with the ambition and fundamental greed that feeds it, never goes away, only returning in ever more threatening waves. It’s as well that the cumulative strengths of Longborough Festival Opera’s production, now reaching its apogee in Götterdämmerung, should be so deeply satisfying musically as to engender elements of hope.

Realising Wagner’s own epic ambition in the context of Longborough’s small, Bayreuth-inspired theatre is primarily the remarkable achievement of conductor Anthony Negus, undoubted lord of this Ring. His authority and understanding permeate every bar. The tone-colours coaxed from his musicians – albeit necessarily fewer than in big houses – are captivating, and the sense that his fine cast of singers were able to luxuriate in the orchestral sound as well as their own is underpinned by tight discipline.

Götterdämmerung is at Longborough Festival Opera in rep on 31 May, and 2, 4 and 6 June.

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Posted: May 29, 2023, 3:58 pm

LSO Futures review – works new and nearly new are a sparkling showcase for this superb orchestra

Barbican, London
Premieres by Jonathan Woolgar and Colin Matthews sat alongside music by Lili Boulanger, Cassie Kinoshi and Bartók in a concert full of interest and energy

The latest of the London Symphony Orchestra’s annual new music concerts, which was conducted by François-Xavier Roth, included two world premieres, one from a composer still in the very early stages of his career, the other from one of the most familiar and significant figures in British contemporary music.

Like many of the pieces that find their way into LSO Futures concerts, Jonathan Woolgar’s Symphonic Message: “Wach Auf” had emerged through the orchestra’s Panufnik Composers Scheme, which mentors up-and-coming talents. It packs an awful lot of incident into barely six minutes of music, beginning with the glorious G major chord that the chorus sings on the word “Auf” at the beginning of the song contest in the final act of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. That grandeur is immediately undermined by a referee’s whistle, and the music sets off in half a dozen different directions at once: there’s a boozy trombone solo, an irascible clarinet, even the beginnings of a Shostakovich-like gallop. It all peters out soon enough, but the eclectic energy is unmistakable.

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Posted: May 29, 2023, 6:00 am

12 Ensemble & GBSR Duo review – Laurence Osborn’s new work TOMB! absorbs and intrigues

Kings Place, London
But in an evening of two halves, the sonic environments of Harold Budd and Brian Eno were all too ignorable

The strings of the 12 Ensemble and the percussion and piano duo of George Barton and Siwan Rhys make natural collaborators, for both regularly explore corners of contemporary music that other groups tend to overlook. Last autumn at Covent Garden they joined forces to provide the pit band for Oliver Leith’s Kurt Cobain opera Last Days, and they have come together again for this touring programme, which was included in the Kings Place Sound Unwrapped series.

Its centrepiece was a new work for strings, piano and percussion by Laurence Osborn, commissioned for the tour, and by quite a margin the most absorbing and worthwhile piece in what was a rather uneven concert. Osborn describes his piece TOMB! as recognising “the necrophiliac side of heritage and our morbid obsession with dead things”. In this case the “dead things” are traditional musical forms like fugue, jig and passacaglia, which flit in and out of the 20-minute movement like apparitions, only occasionally assuming recognisable forms. The effect is intriguing, sometimes unnerving, but always engaging, and full of textures that are never quite as straightforward as they seem.

Repeated at Cheltenham festival on 14 July

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Posted: May 28, 2023, 12:00 pm

I was writing a book about Rachmaninov in exile when my own world changed for ever

In lockdown, the Observer’s classical music critic began work on a book about the Russian composer’s later years – celebrated as a pianist but homesick and writing little. Then war, and events in her own life, began to reshape the narrative

All life goes into a book. Unless it’s a kiss’n’tell, this truth may bypass the reader. A study of steam trains or tax systems or, in my case, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov (I’ll come back to the spelling) will seep into the crevices of a writer’s daily existence even if the resulting text appears harnessed in cool objectivity. Decisions are made, anecdotes abandoned because of a plumbing disaster, a knock at the door or a burnt cake. Words scuttle round your head at night and you wonder what possessed you.

Where does it all start? I had to retrieve my old diary to remember how (on earth), in January 2021, I agreed to deliver, 15 months later, 90,000 words on Rachmaninov for publication this year. It was the start of the second year of lockdown. The diary was virtually empty. Appointments were on Zoom, concerts I hoped to review mostly cancelled. I had checklists about my father, in his 90s, living alone far away: what was he eating apart from tins of rice pudding and chocolate biscuits? Could he get a vaccine? I can’t remember what the rules were for visiting by that time, but all encounters were a risk: my husband, the artist Tom Phillips RA, had a long-term lung condition so was in the vulnerable category for Covid-19.

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Posted: May 27, 2023, 11:00 am

Classical home listening: Daniel Hope’s Music for a New Century; 1919: Coda

Contrasting works by Glass, Heggie, Turnage and Tan Dun provide a fine showcase for Hope and his ensemble, while Benjamin Baker and Daniel Lebhardt explore the turbulent 1910s

Daniel Hope, violinist and music director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, calls his new album with the orchestra, Music for a New Century (Deutsche Grammophon), “a portrait of composition in postmodern times”. This is a deft way of explaining why four wholly diverse works have been programmed together, all commissioned or co-commissioned by Hope and his ensemble.

Philip Glass’s Piano Concerto No 3, soloist Alexey Botvinov, shows the composer at his most (or perhaps too) liquid and mellifluous. Overture, by Glass’s compatriot Jake Heggie, explores jaunty strings lines and syncopations in the tradition of an American predecessor, Aaron Copland. Tan Dun’s Double Concerto – a scaling down of his triple concerto, now for violin, piano, strings and percussion – is invigorating and evocative in its mixing of Chinese and western musical styles. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Lament, as melancholy as its title suggest, provides a powerful vehicle for Hope’s virtuosity. You could object to the narrowness of the choices – it is, inevitably, a partial portrait of a vast subject – or you could enjoy it on its own terms, which I did.

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Posted: May 14, 2023, 8:30 am

Director Adele Thomas: ‘In theatre, you need a private income just to live’

The theatre and opera director on how her working-class Welsh background informs her work, the strangeness of Il trovatore, and her eclectic running playlist

Born and raised in Port Talbot, south Wales, Adele Thomas, 41, is an award-winning director noted for her highly physical, pared-back stagings for theatre and opera. Since directing student theatre while at Cambridge University, she has worked across the UK and abroad. Shows include The Oresteia and Thomas Tallis at Shakespeare’s Globe, and Under Milk Wood at the Royal & Derngate theatre in Northampton. She now works predominantly in opera and has directed Vivaldi’s Bazajet (Royal Opera House and Irish National Opera), Handel’s Berenice and, earlier this year, In the Realms of Sorrow at the London Handel festival with Stone Nest. Thomas makes her Glyndebourne festival debut this summer with Handel’s Semele (23 July-26 August). Her production of Verdi’s Il trovatore, already seen in Zurich, will be at the Royal Opera House, London, 2 June-2 July.

We should start with your Welsh background, and the way it feeds into your work.
I come from a traditional working-class background. When I was growing up in Port Talbot, it was a place to escape from, to rail against. London, the metropolitan life, seemed to be where I should be. The expectation at school was that we’d be lucky to get a job in the town’s steelworks, directly opposite the school. Ambition wasn’t encouraged. Now I feel totally differently. I realise that the place has a sort of magic to it. It’s like a creative wellspring. So many actors have come from there: Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen. That sense of the Welsh bard, the lone beautiful speaker walking across the hillside – that really carries through to acting. And the collective idea of performance is reflected in Welsh choral singing. But directing? Standing up and telling others how to do it? That’s something I didn’t know about, growing up.

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Posted: May 8, 2023, 4:58 pm

Grace Bumbry obituary

American opera star with a magnetic stage presence who was the first black singer at Bayreuth

When the soprano Grace Bumbry projected the single word “Guardie!” (“Guards!”) as Amneris at the beginning of Act 4 of Verdi’s Aida, it was the kind of order that brooked no opposition, and was typical of her complete command of the role and of the stage.

Bumbry, who has died aged 86, was one of those singers who demanded complete attention when she was performing. Her magnetic presence in the theatre was seconded by her strong, evenly produced voice, basically a high mezzo that she was eventually able to extend into the soprano range – indeed into the title part of Aida itself.

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Posted: March 22, 2023, 5:28 pm

Nicholas Snowman obituary

Arts administrator who founded the London Sinfonietta and led the Southbank Centre and Glyndebourne

At the heart of British musical life for over 30 years, Nicholas Snowman, who has died suddenly aged 78, will be remembered in this country not only for the three flagship organisations he headed – London Sinfonietta, the Southbank Centre and Glyndebourne – but also by countless cultural enterprises to which he gave his committed support.

Known as a quietly determined, even ruthless, administrator of radical persuasion, he energised the scene with his ambitious ideas but did not always succeed in carrying his colleagues and superiors with him and seemed happiest when able to repair to his beloved France, where he ran the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg from 2002 to 2009.

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Posted: March 5, 2023, 8:34 pm

Christopher Nupen obituary

Maker of classical music documentaries who sought to capture the magic of live performance and the aspirations of the performers

One of the most enduring film sequences of Jacqueline du Pré is of the cellist on a train heading to Gatwick airport. Her face transfused with joy, she’s singing a French folk song and accompanying herself, pizzicato, on the cello. The director responsible for that footage, Christopher Nupen, who has died at the age of 88, made no fewer than six films, including compilations, involving Du Pré, and no one was more successful in capturing her infectiously uncontainable pleasure in performing.

A series of other pioneering, psychologically probing films made early in his career featured Daniel Barenboim – Du Pré’s husband and playing partner – and several friends, among them Vladimir Ashkenazy and John Williams, all at that time electrifying the London music scene.

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Posted: February 6, 2023, 2:00 pm

Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts: ‘I know people who support the war. They keep their mouths shut’

Regarded as one of the world’s best soloists, Gringolts remains in exile after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now in Australia, he talks about speaking out where other performers have stayed silent

The last time that Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts performed in his home country was in August 2021, seven months before Russia invaded Ukraine. Back then, Gringolts was embroiled in a contract dispute which, he says, resulted in him not being paid for his last performances in Russia. Now, he is glad he did not accept what he calls “dirty money”.

The 40-year-old has not lived in Russia for more than two decades, having left after becoming the youngest ever winner of Italy’s international violin competition, the Premio Paganini, when he was a teenager. After that he went to Juilliard in New York, where he studied under legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, and was soon regarded as one of the best violin soloists in the world. But to this day, his extended family are living in St Petersburg, though his parents fled the country soon after the invasion of Ukraine.

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Posted: February 1, 2023, 4:03 pm

‘I was swallowing the piano whole’: Stephen Hough on life as a prodigy – and playing for Jimmy Savile

In an extract from his new childhood memoir, the great concert pianist recalls falling in love with the instrument, pestering his parents for lessons … and the deception on Jim’ll Fix It

Number 94 Chester Road, Grappenhall. Probably in 1966. Where and when I first touched a piano. It was at the home of Uncle Alf and Auntie Ethel. Alfred Smith had a Lancashire accent as flat in vowels as the cap on his head lacked a crown. His right forefinger was flat too, deformed into a spatula by an accident at work. He was kind and modest and back-slappingly cheerful, unlike his wife who always seemed to me rather sour. Or stewed perhaps, like tea steeped too long.

It was tea that brought us together, as we used to go to their house to drink it in their back sitting room. I was bored by these visits but on the right wall, in that back sitting room, stood a brown piano with yellow keys. A little boy aged four stood eye to eye with the teeth of those keys and gently, tentatively, pressed down some of the ivory tabs. My father said that I would play chords, not individual notes. Hammers hit strings, strings vibrated inside the box and the most amazing sounds entered my ears ... and my life. Nothing would satisfy me now but to have a piano of my own and to learn to play it.

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Posted: December 2, 2020, 1:24 pm

Without Ethel Smyth and classical music's forgotten women, we only tell half the story

Expanding the classical canon brings us incredible music and extraordinary stories, not least that of Ethel Smyth, whose compositions and pioneering energy filled England in the interwar years

In 1934, all of musical England gathered to celebrate the 75th birthday of one the country’s most famous composers – Dame Ethel Smyth. During a festival spanning several months, audiences crowded into the Queen’s Hall, London, to hear her symphonic cantata The Prison, or settled in at home to listen to the BBC broadcasts of her work. At the festival’s final concert in the Royal Albert Hall, the composer sat beside Queen Mary to watch Sir Thomas Beecham conduct her Mass. By this point, Smyth was nearly completely deaf, and could barely hear a note of her own music. But she could understand the uproarious applause that surrounded her when the concert ended, acknowledging the lifetime she had given to music.

After her death in 1944, Smyth spent several decades out of the limelight, but she is now coming back on to concert programmes and recording schedules. The CD release that blew me away this year was Chandos’s world premiere recording of The Prison, delivering stellar performances from Dashon Burton, Sarah Brailey, James Blachly and the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus. And Smyth is not alone in enjoying a resurgence of interest. Thanks to decades of work by campaigners, performers, and musicologists, diversity is now firmly on musicians’ agendas. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it feels as if we might be reaching a turning point. The BBC and Classic FM have been running programmes about composers of colour, publishers are turning their attention to figures currently absent from their catalogues, and both #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have led to institutions being held to account on their commitments to gender and racial equality.

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Posted: September 12, 2019, 4:20 pm

The best classical music works of the 21st century

Over the coming week, the Guardian will select the greatest culture since 2000, carefully compiled by critics and editors. We begin with a countdown of defining classical music compositions, from X-rated opera to high-tech string quartets

Read an interview with our No1 choice

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Posted: November 24, 2016, 3:42 pm

A musical tour of Europe's great cities: Berlin

Our series ends in the German capital with Berg, Busoni, Bowie and Bernstein.

Also in this series: London | Paris | Venice | Helsinki | Prague | Hamburg | Rome | Vienna | Amsterdam

In putting Berlin under the microscope in the last of our post-Brexit tours of the great cities of Europe, it seems that all roads lead to Kurt Weill. “Berlin will forever be associated with the turbulent times of the 20th century,” says @abkquan, whose suggestions have been a mainstay of these surveys. “The Weimar period produced the definitive Berlin work – Weill’s Threepenny Opera with its many familiar tunes, especially with Lotte Lenya singing Jenny.”

The Threepenny Opera, a collaboration between Weill and Bertolt Brecht based on 18th-century dramatist John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, was premiered at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928, and after some initial resistance was a great success, vindicating Weill’s ambition to reclaim opera as an art form for the people (though Berlin’s elite of course delighted in its scabrous tale of cutthroats and prostitutes).

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