First Crush Critics for The Times Explore Inspiration: It All Started With a Toy Piano

A Critic’s Ode to a Childhood Joy in Classical Music

The other recording was a Columbia LP of Rudolf Serkin playing three titled piano sonatas by Beethoven: the “Pathétique,” the “Moonlight” and the “Appassionata.” All three pieces were thrilling, and Serkin became my pianist hero. 

Stradivarius at the Ashmolean Museum - Summer Exhibition 2013

This summer, the Ashmolean will open a special exhibition celebrating the life and work of Antonio Stradivari. For the first time ever in the UK, the Ashmolean will bring together 21 of Stradivari's most important, well-preserved instruments to showcase the brilliance of his craft, including 11 works from his Golden Period.

Violinist is Stradivarius player James Ehnes who performs in Oxford on 14 June

Exhibition curator, Jon Whiteley, violin expert, Charles Beare, and exhibitions assistant Catriona Pearson, tell us all about the museum's upcoming exhibition.

For information, and to book tickets, visit:

Dr Jon Whiteley, Senior Assistant Keeper of Western Art and Curator of the exhibition, says: "The Ashmolean is thrilled and honoured to be holding this exhibition, and we are extremely grateful to the institutions and private owners who have generously lent their instruments. To bring together so many rare and important violins -- by the greatest maker of all time -- is an extraordinary event and one which I hope our many visitors will enjoy."

Video filmed by Angel Sharp Media
Copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

What it means to play a Stradivarius violin

The chance to play a Stradivarius violin which features in a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum is "a once in a lifetime experience" says Oxford music graduate Cecilia Stinton.

Oxford University music graduate Cecilia Stinton had the privilege of playing the 1666 Stradivarius violin known as the "Serdet". The instrument is currently on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, as part of an exhibition looking at the legendary string instruments created by Antonio Stradivari.

... But the instruments were created to be heard. Each instrument’s sound is celebrated and can be heard in the show’s audio guide.

The exhibition includes an impression of Stradivari’s studio in Cremona, Italy, displaying his original tools, models and patterns. It also includes performances. 

What does it feel like to play a Stradivarius? “Awesome, really, in the true sense of the word,” said Stinton. “On top of the normal adrenaline which goes with having to perform, there is that thought that you’re holding something which is worth God knows how many millions, and then there is the thought: ‘I’m going to add another layer to the ownership.’ It’s like that thing when you shake hands with your idol and you don’t want to wash your hands again.”

From Carnegie Hall, A Youth Orchestra That's A National First

Conductor Valery Gergiev leads the National Youth Orchestra through its first rehearsal with the maestro, at Purchase College outside New York City.

It's a hot summer afternoon and the recital hall at Purchase College is abuzz with excitement and nervous energy. One hundred and twenty teenagers, from 42 states, are about to embark on an extraordinary musical and personal journey.

Clive Gillinson, executive director of Carnegie Hall, steps up to the podium to greet them. "Welcome to all of you," he says. "It's wonderful to welcome you here to the first-ever National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America!"
Conductor Valery Gergiev will lead the first season of an American national youth orchestra in 2013.

There are youth orchestras and summer music camps all over the U.S., but Carnegie Hall may have created the best music camp ever. For the past two weeks, some of the best teenage musicians in the country have gathered on the Purchase campus to create an ensemble that is the first in the state. Gillinson, who became executive director of Carnegie Hall in 2005, says playing cello in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain was a highlight of his life.

"When I arrived, I could not believe there was not a U.S. National Youth Orchestra," he says. "I think every country needs one, in terms of inspiring — you know, the best students inspiring each other."

So Gillinson and Carnegie's staff set out to find the finest musicians in the country, from ages 16 to 19, and began raising millions of dollars to bring the project to fruition.

"There were a number of things that we felt were important," Gillinson says. "One of them was that it should be free to all the students participating. We thought it should be something where anybody can take part, not that if you don't have enough money, you can't. So, obviously, that makes it more expensive."

Carnegie is doing everything in a first-class way. The instrumental coaches are principal players from major symphony orchestras around the country; the tour will play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and in Moscow, St. Petersburg and London. And it didn't take much arm twisting to get violinist to sign on as soloist.

"It's a different experience than playing with a great professional orchestra," Bell says of performing with the teens. "For them, ... music is not a job yet. It's still all excitement and joy. It should be that way for professional orchestras, too, but it's not always!"

is a 17-year-old trombone player from Sioux Falls, S.D. She says she was walking on sunshine when she found out she was accepted into the orchestra.

"The first rehearsal, I was speechless," says trombonist Skye Dearborn (center).
"It blew my mind," Dearborn says. "The first rehearsal, I was speechless. I feel so privileged to play with these kids who are, you know, I feel like half of them are going to Juilliard and Harvard and Princeton, Yale. And it's really awesome to be surrounded by the talent, 'cause I feel like I'm absorbing it, in a way. I'm really lucky to be here."

At the start, the orchestra was prepared by James Ross, who teaches conducting at the University of Maryland. Sixteen-year-old has played viola in youth orchestras in her hometown of Los Angeles.

"You know, sometimes it can be overwhelming — just drilling technique, getting people to just even, like, have some basic concept of the rhythm," Greene says. "But here it was like the opposite. ... It's like he had assumed that we'd already have the canvas and he was gonna start painting on it."

The orchestra spent over a week preparing for the arrival of the real maestro, Russian conductor . , a 19-year-old percussionist from Lawton, Okla., found himself overwhelmed in Gergiev's presence.

"The energy that he brings to the stage — wow! There's so much," Barnes says. "And I like that he doesn't conduct with a baton. "He's not very flashy or showy about his conducting. Sometimes it's even hard to find the downbeat, but it makes you really hang on to the music more."

 Gergiev, for his part, was excited to work with the young players and bring his considerable expertise to the music of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, eliciting nuance and emotion from the orchestra.

"I will not simply welcome a beautiful sound. I will also try to make sure that it is a lot to do with the symphony of Shostakovich, to apply the abilities of these young musicians to precisely this score," Gergiev says. "There are many, many things which can sound very good! It doesn't mean this is a great performance of a certain symphony."

This past Thursday night, the orchestra gave its first concert, at Purchase College. They had spent two weeks not just rehearsing, but getting to know each other, becoming good friends. And after several standing ovations, the kids were abuzz again.

"We had a great concert," percussionist Micheal Barnes said after the show. "You know, 

Percussionist Micheal Barnes is impressed with maestro Valery Gergiev. "The energy that he brings to the stage — wow! There's so much," Barnes says.
Joshua Bell was a great soloist, as was expected. But Maestro Gergiev, really — wow, he just totally changed when he started conducting the real thing. He just brought all of the stops out. And it was just great. I think we truly became the National Youth Orchestra tonight."

The National Youth Orchestra performs at the Kennedy Center Saturday evening, then flies to Russia for the next leg of its tour. And next year, a completely new National Youth Orchestra will tour the U.S.

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Taronga Zoo's Leopard Seal Serenaded by a Saxophone

Belgium Saxophone as Zoo Tool

Invented by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax, the saxophone has been wooing people since 1846 with it’s bluesy serenades.  Most recently, seals – namely Casey the seal – has been the recipient of such beautiful sonnets ts the Taronga zoo in Australia, as they have started using the Belgian Saxophone as a tool in their new ‘environmental enrichment’ program.

The leopard seal named Casey has been loving his new program and even singing along as Steve Westnedge the elephant keeper (and apparently seal-keeper) has been taking time to play for Casey each day.  The Australian Marine Mammal Research Centre (AMMRC), based at Taronga Zoo, has been watching and studying Casey since he was rescued near Sydney in 2005.  Marine mammals supervisor Ryan Tate comments on the program:

“They are certainly aware of new noises, so something like the saxophone was a great way of giving our leopard seal some different environmental enrichment.  At certain times of year they really react to the noises and sing back.”

Leopard seals are known for their highly complex sound vocabulary.  The fact that this seal and those working at the Taronga zoo are having this experience, is unique for sure. Casey is the only leopard seal in the whole world who is living in a zoo. Most leopard seals reside in the ices of Antarctica, occasionally visiting New Zealand, Aukland and the Campbell islands during the deep winter months. “Underwater vocalizations are of low to medium frequency and long duration. The leopard seal’s lowest frequency call is particularly powerful and can be heard at the surface and felt through the ice.”  It seems Casey the seal is liking the deep notes of the saxophone as you watch him dancing and twirling near the glass.

Music played for zoo animals seems like a great idea indeed, especially in light of the fact that these creatures are not in their natural habitats and have to adapt to an environment unlike ‘home.’  Music has been shown to decrease stress in humans, so why not animal life in general?  Sound therapy has long been recognized as not only a way to calm the mind and soothe the emotions, but to balance the brain and release healing hormones in the body as well.  Animals who have been captured and put into zoos because of injuries like Casey, could greatly benefit and find intense healing from sound therapy, thus allowing their gentle release back into the wild.

Originating in Belgium as a bridge-instrument to “be the most powerful and vocal of the woodwinds, and the most adaptive of the brass—that would fill the vacant middle ground between the two sections”  is today,  being used as a zoo tool to soothe Casey the seal in Australia.  Do you think Adolphe Sax would have ever imagined it?  Perhaps more zoos will begin to incorporate music and extend the environmental enrichment program to animals of every species in every zoo.  It certainly sounds like a great plan for aspiring musicians – to play for the animals before the people ‘devour them.’

Written by: Stasia Bliss

Classical Music Virtuoso Who Plays Piano and Tablet

Conrad Tao is a 19-year-old virtuoso who tries to push the limits of classical music by combining tradition and technology. His experiments include compositions for piano and iPad as well as stage performances with a bright pink toy piano.

Tao, a New Yorker, began playing children's songs on the piano at just 18 months of age. He gave his first recital age four. He has won several awards, including the Avery Fisher Career Grant, a Gilmore Young Artist Award and eight consecutive Ascap Morton Gould Young Composer Awards.

He believes that classical music needs more than a marketing effort to attract a younger audience. It must "confront contemporary reality", he says.

Produced for the BBC by Anna Bressanin

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Mozart on Mozart's Own Instruments

Live in concert in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio, violinist Daniel Stepner and violist Anne Black get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform a work by Mozart on instruments that the composer himself owned and played.


Mozart never made it to America: getting seasick crossing the English Channel put an end to any of his seafaring fantasies. But America was frequently on Mozart's mind. In fact, his closest collaborator, librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, actually immigrated to these shores and became the first professor of Italian at Columbia University in New York.

Mozart's music has made it here, of course – it's woven into the lives of practically everyone. And that's a big part of why there were so many goosebumps when an excited audience in Boston was suddenly in the presence of two of the instruments that Mozart had placed firmly under his chin, in private and in concert, uncountable times.

Only a few days earlier, an Austrian had made his way through security with a violin case and boarded a plane in Salzburg. Another Austrian boarded a different plane with a viola case. And that marked the first time that two priceless possessions of Mozart had gone transatlantic. What a thrill that they were headed for the room up the hall from us at Classical New England. The Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation was reaching out to the wider world, and the two instruments were never, ever out of the sight of at least one member of the entourage who came along for events presented by the Boston Early Music Festival.

Ulrich Leisinger and Gabriele Ramsauer of the Mozarteum Foundation painted a vivid picture of Mozart the performer – playful, proud, very short (just five feet!) and ultimately favoring the viola over the violin. I watched Daniel Stepner taking advantage of every minute that he had with the violin, trying to unlock the secret of making it speak. It's no turbo-charged Stradivarius – it has a bright but intimate sound that will complain if it's leaned on too heavily. Dan had to learn its ins and outs in a matter of hours. The marvel is that the violin has remained almost entirely intact – just as Mozart knew it. And that's because everyone who owned it knew that it had been Mozart's. The viola is a beauty, too, although it has seen a number of alterations over the years.

I squinted at the instruments during the performance, trying to imagine them in Mozart's candlelit rooms. I fantasized about their warm color getting a glint of sunshine through a Paris window during a rehearsal for the premiere of one of the violin concertos. I wondered if Mozart improvised cadenzas on that violin.

I asked Leisinger if we had any way of knowing what Mozart's actual voice sounded like. He said that we only know that when he sang he was a tenor. So his speaking voice was probably high. That's something we'll never be able to hear. But it was so good to hear the voices that came from his instruments. And because Mozart really is so deeply woven into us, virtually everyone took a moment at the reception to have their photo taken holding Mozart's violin. Having played so much Mozart at the piano over the years, I felt so deeply happy and privileged to touch these things that meant so much to him.

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Why Being Stuck On A Tarmac With The Philly Orchestra Rocks

There are few things as annoying as being stuck on a tarmac — in a cramped, packed plane — for long periods of time. But when you have some of the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra on your flight, it could turn magical.

No, seriously.

It happened to passengers on a flight from Beijing to Macau, this week. They had been sitting on the tarmac for three hours when a quartet of musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra pulled out their instruments and provided a "Pop Up" performance.

The orchestra published video of the performance: