Tom Huizenga

Can't take another moment of Vivaldi's ubiquitous Four Seasons? Neither could Max Richter, a London-based composer who deftly blurs the lines between the classical and electronic worlds.

Is there some kind of weird vocal vortex in Minnesota? The state turns out so many excellent choral groups — at the school, church and professional levels — that it can arguably be dubbed the choral center of the U.S.

The members of the male vocal ensemble called Cantus, who huddled around Bob Boilen's desk to sing for us, hail from that vortex — specifically Minneapolis-St. Paul.

No one would mistake Carnegie Hall's grand 2,800-seat Isaac Stern Auditorium for a cozy Parisian salon. But soprano Reneé Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will do their best to conjure such an intimate space Sunday at 8 p.m. ET as they present an evening of French songs, webcast live on this page and at WQXR.

"Location, location, location" is the mantra of real estate, but for centuries geographical locales have also been a boon to the imagination of many a composer. Think of Tchaikovsky, who mimicked the bugle calls he heard each morning while visiting Rome in the opening brass fanfare of his Capriccio Italien.

On Jan. 20, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States. And Monday, President Obama will be sworn in again — this time on a most auspicious day, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

In King's most famous speech, he said, "In spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

It happened again last Saturday. And boy, when it hit me it felt great — though it left me a little shaken.

Are you the type to make New Year's resolutions? They're easy to make, but tough to keep — at least when it comes to your own. So how about brainstorming a few resolutions that are a little less personal?

While the new year is still fresh, let's take a look in the rearview mirror at some of the noteworthy happenings in the classical music world. Were you listening last year? See if you remember the big, and not-so-big, stories from 2012 in our quiz.

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In high season, as many as two dozen albums appear in my mail bin each week. But in the first weeks of any new year, new releases are a rarity. That means patiently waiting for 2013's first intriguing albums to arrive. As a sort of appetizer, we offer three tracks from albums I'm really looking forward to. These artists (and their record companies) have generously allowed us these tantalizing tastes of what's to come.

Any releases you're impatiently awaiting? Let us know in the comments section.

Fond Farewells: Classical Musicians We Lost in 2012

Dec 31, 2012

From mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli's ambitious revival of the early Baroque composer Agostino Stefani (and yes, she's got another outrageous album cover) to three very different roles for the violin, here's a clutch of classical albums I returned to again and again this year for sheer delight and aural inspiration. Bartoli lavishes extravagant attention on the music of a fascinating but forgotten link in the history of opera.

At first glance, our top picks for 2012 may seem to range far and wide, from a fresh take on an epic late Beethoven string quartet to cellist Maya Beiser playing spaciously layered new music by Michael Harrison. What unites this diverse bunch is a spirit of discovery — not just in new music that we'll return to again and again but in the artistic energy that animates each of these projects.

Stile Antico is a 13-member a cappella choir based in London. Most of these fresh-faced singers are still in their 20s, but they've already racked up some impressive awards for their recordings — mainly of intricately woven music from the Renaissance.

If Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote a dull piece of music, I've not yet heard it. And even if there is a workaday piece or two lurking within his 300 keyboard sonatas, you certainly won't find it on this new album by British pianist Danny Driver, who deftly uncovers the surprising restlessness of the music.

These days it's not unusual to find classical musicians performing in unlikely venues — pubs, clubs and out-of-the-way places. But long before this trend took hold there was Matt Haimovitz. Ten years ago, the intrepid cellist lugged his instrument across the country, bringing music by J.S. Bach to barrooms, coffeehouses and even Manhattan's famous punk club CBGB.

There comes a time in the life of most string quartets when, for better or worse, Beethoven must be confronted. For the acclaimed Belcea Quartet (named after its first violinist Corina Belcea), that time is now. The London-based group, founded at the Royal College of Music in 1994, is thoroughly steeped in Beethoven's 16 string quartets — pieces written throughout the early, middle and late stages of his career in an epic sweep of compositional mastery and imagination.

Few classical musicians these days are serious improvisers — aside from organists and early-music practitioners. But pianist Gabriela Montero is absolutely fearless when it comes to creating a new piece, right out of the air, right on the spot. At her concerts she takes requests from audience members. They can suggest a song for her to improvise on, or simply a topic of interest.

When catastrophe strikes, when lives and livelihoods are lost, we hold tight to family, friends and our deepest beliefs for consolation. We also sometimes turn to music. With its inexpressible power, music can help channel memories, soothe the loss and salve the pain. And it can uplift, reminding us of our resiliency.

Call it what you want — superstorm, Frankenstorm, post-tropical cyclone — Mother Nature dished out something freakishly fearsome with Hurricane Sandy. It claimed more than 100 lives throughout the Northeast and the Caribbean, while causing what will surely be billions of dollars of damage in the form of washed-out businesses and flood-ravaged homes. It's a history-making hurricane that, alas, will not be soon forgotten.

Perhaps no other composer's music has been dressed up (and down) in a wider variety of outfits than Johann Sebastian Bach's.

As the presidential campaign heads into the homestretch, with binders, bayonets and a profusion of political ads, perhaps it's time to step back from the election hubbub.

Twenty-five years ago today, Houston Grand Opera mounted the world premiere of Nixon in China, the first opera by a young composer named John Adams. Two days later, The New York Times described it as a "coy and insubstantial work" and "hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory."