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Classical composers have long had their patrons: Beethoven had Archduke Rudolph, John Cage had Betty Freeman. For contemporary opera composers, there's Beth Morrison. She and her production company have commissioned new works from some of the most innovative emerging composers today.

Georges Prêtre, the French conductor with a seven-decade career that included close associations with Maria Callas and many of the world's top orchestras, died Wednesday in France at age 92.

Ben Johnston doesn't follow the rules of music. Sure, he's got degrees from two colleges and a conservatory. But from an early age, Johnston heard music differently. When he was growing up in Georgia, he questioned the standard scales he was taught in school. "I played by ear and I invented my own chords," he says.

In the last week of 2016, Songs We Love is featuring just a few of the songs that, for whatever reason, never got their due this year.

The clarinet and guitar are common enough instruments, but you've probably never heard them sound quite like this. In the hands of guitarist Golfam Khayam and clarinetist Mona Matbou Riahi, the instruments breathe together in music that borrows melody and improvisation from their Iranian homeland and classical structures from the West.

The shopping's almost done. Menus are planned. The relatives are relatively under control.

Just one thing's missing from your holiday checklist — music.

Instead of fumbling through dusty CDs, LPs and cassettes, how about a click-of-the-mouse playlist of classical, and classy, holiday music?

There should be something here for just about everyone: plenty of Christmas carols, a few Hanukkah favorites and some off the beaten slope items.

Ennio Morricone is as about close as a film composer can come to being a household name — and, at age 88, he's still going strong. This year, he was signed to a new record label and has now released a new recording, Morricone 60, named for the number of years he's been in the business.

The last time New York's Metropolitan Opera presented a work written by a woman was 113 years ago. It's a drought that lasted longer than the years between the Cubs' World Series victories. That situation has finally been rectified this week with the New York premiere of the opera L'Amour de Loin by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

Christmas is coming, and soon TV screens everywhere will light up with that 1946 holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life. But the same story is coming a little early to the stage of the Houston Grand Opera. That's right: An operatic version of George Bailey's struggle with life and death opens this Friday.

Librettist Gene Scheer admits that adapting such a beloved movie has sometimes felt like a fool's errand. "It's almost secular scripture, this piece," he says. "Everyone knows all the lines."

Joyce DiDonato is one of the most acclaimed opera singers of her generation; this year, she won the Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Solo. Her latest album, In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music, is a collection of baroque arias from the 17th and 18th centuries divided into two sections — one addressing war, the other, peace.

The Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi brought in a full band for a stunning live performance. He has a giant global following — and for good reason, as demonstrated by this rendition of his piece "Petricor."

SET LIST

  • "Petricor"

Photo: Larry Hirshowitz/KCRW. Watch Ludovico Einaudi's full Morning Becomes Eclectic set at KCRW.com.

Jazz great Wynton Marsalis, a virtuoso trumpet player and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, has written — wait for it — a violin concerto.

As the daughter of the late virtuoso violinist Roman Totenberg, I was intrigued and wanted to know more. So I spent an hour with Marsalis — and the violinist he wrote his concerto with and for. (More on that later.)

Do you believe in ghosts? The age-old question pops up this time of year when Halloween looms — the answer for opera composers seems to be a resounding "yes." Many of them, from Mozart to Corigliano, have given ghosts a few choice moments on stage. Operatic apparitions arrive suddenly in the middle of the night, crash dinner parties or do their ghostly duty simply by playing tricks on the minds of the living.

Brian Eno. David Bowie. Kraftwerk. Radiohead. Aphex Twin. The National. These are just some of the contemporary artists and bands who have looked up to American composer Steve Reich.

Neville Marriner, the conductor and violinist who was something of an entrepreneur as well as the guiding spirit behind one of the most successful classical recordings of all time — the soundtrack to the 1984 smash movie Amadeus — died overnight at age 92 at his home in London. His death was announced by the chamber orchestra he founded, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

If the viola is your instrument, it can be difficult to find repertoire to showcase your talent. But violist Nadia Sirota has plenty to play. She champions new composers to write music for her and forms ensembles to play it. Sirota's longtime collaborator Nico Muhly recently released an album called Keep in Touch, featuring two pieces written specifically for her.

Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 3, which appears on his latest album, contains many levels of meaning. It's an homage to the Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev, whose Second Symphony serves as a structural model for the piece. It's an encoded musical portrait of Rouse's wife. And it's an engaging piece of music even for a listener who possesses none of this background knowledge.

American composer Julia Wolfe has won one of the biggest windfalls in the arts world. She is one of this year's MacArthur Fellows, recipients of the so-called "genius grants" given to a wide range of talented figures from the arts, humanities, sciences and social services. The 2016 class of fellows was announced early Thursday morning.

When you think of an orchestra, you're probably picturing refined woodwoods, brass, and strings. But one ensemble I recently met is made up mostly of kids who play instruments made out of literal trash. This is the Recycled Orchestra from Cateura, Paraguay, and their group is the subject of a new documentary film.

Alastair Willis
alastairwillis.com

Join UIS Ethnomusicology Professor Yona Stamatis Wednesdays, 8-10 PM streaming here and broadcast on  NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS to listen to the Illinois Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Alastair Willis recorded live in concert last season. 

Derek Gripper was a musician with a problem. He'd been playing classical music since he was 6 years old — violin, then piano and finally guitar. He was poised for an international career as a classical guitarist. But he remembers going to the homeland of one of his favorite composers, Johann Sebastian Bach.

"It felt kind of strange," he says. "It felt strange to be in Germany playing Bach to them."

As a 16-year-old, Pretty Yende was sitting with her parents in their rural South African home watching TV when a British Airways ad came on. As the sweet music swelled and voices intertwined, Yende was mesmerized. The only problem: She had no idea what to call the beautiful music she'd just heard.

Live at the Suggs: Sandeep Das

Oct 10, 2014
Sandeep Das playing tabla
Rachel Otwell / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

A tabla virtuoso is in Springfield. Sandeep Das has worked with greats like Yo-Yo Ma and Ravi Shankar. He will play with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, headed by Alastair Willis, on Saturday (CLICK HERE for more info.)

In this interview, UIS ethnomusicology professor Yona Stamatis speaks with Maestro Willis about the concert, called 'Beethoven Meets the Silk Road': 

Why Aren't Composers Writing More Symphonies Today?

Sep 17, 2013

At 8 years old, I scrawled my first and last Symphonies — nos. 1, 2, and 3 — on ruled notebook paper. They were short duets for clarinet and trumpet for myself and my brother to play. Why did I call them symphonies? I can't remember, but I suspect that it was a desire to tie these efforts — and me, by extension — to a grand and venerable tradition.

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