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  • A guide to Wagner's Parsifal

    classical-music.com | Thu, 21 Nov 2019 09:00:12 +0000

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    Parsifal

    Composed: 1877-82
    
Premiered: 20 July 1882, Bayreuth

    Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, has been in constant pain and shame ever since losing the Holy Spear when led sensuously astray in the neighbouring realm of the conniving Klingsor. Retrieving the spear falls to the unwary, innocent Parsifal, who nearly succumbs to the same charms, courtesy of the alluring Kundry, but snaps to his senses. His journey to return to the Grail castle and cure Amfortas’s suffering takes many years, but the outcome is an exultant one.

     

     

    Parsifal is Wagner’s last opera; and that, with its religious subject, has encouraged both admirers and enemies to invest it with a kind of holy aura. It was also his only work written expressly for the Bayreuth theatre, which after a lengthy but fruitless fundraising effort (an approach to Chancellor Bismarck drew a blank) was eventually completed in 1875 on the back of a substantial donation from Ludwig II. Cosima (who in 1870 won her battle to divorce Hans von Bülow and marry Wagner) later fought to have it performed there and there alone, and many claim it only sounds authentic in that unique acoustic. 

     

     

    Wagner called Parsifal not a Bühnenfestspiel like the Ring, but a Bühnenweihfestspiel – not a stage festival play, but a stage consecration festival play. This caused the anti-clerical Nietzsche, an erstwhile friend, to accuse him of ‘falling at the feet of the Cross’. But Parsifal is hardly a Christian opera; it’s an opera about Christianity. As Wagner was aware, its legendary background is pagan – the ‘Graal’ only evolved in late medieval times into Christ’s chalice at the Last Supper, later used to catch his blood. (Eventually it was subsumed into Arthurian legend, its hero becoming ‘Sir Perceval’, but Wagner preferred earlier forms.) Wagner synthesised them as he had Norse myth in the Ring, adding such aspects as karma and reincarnation from his Buddhist leanings, theosophistic concepts like instinctive insight, and remarkably modern-sounding speculations about the interdependence of space and time, then being contemplated by physicists like 
George Fitzgerald.

     

     

    The quality of the score is extraordinary. Where the Ring is mercurial and elemental, and Tristan sensual and nocturnal, Parsifal is strongly ritualised, with formal chants, processional marches and the borrowing of the ‘Dresden Amen’, centering on the great quasi-Mass that concludes Act I. But despite such potential weight, from the Prelude onward the music seems airy and translucent, like a great cathedral roof sustained by soaring buttresses. Its harmonies look forward, for example, to Debussy, who quotes Parsifal in Pelléas et Mélisande. In common with Tristan it often suggests yearnings, but for relief and redemption rather than erotic self-negation, and the revivifying presence of the Grail itself.

     

     

    The leading roles are unusual: Parsifal himself, the uneducated boy who discovers a mission of redemption; the enigmatic Kundry, heroine and quasi-immortal temptress in one; and her victim, the maimed Amfortas, are traditional Wagnerian roles, for heroic tenor, dramatic soprano and heroic baritone respectively, yet they’re all fairly brief – Amfortas has only two great scenes, and Kundry, despite her huge Act II scene with Parsifal, sings just one word in Act III. Her corrupt master, the enchanter Klingsor appears only briefly in Act II. Only Gurnemanz, the wise Grail knight who recognises Parsifal’s potential, has anything like a long, demanding part, and much of that is narration. Did Wagner’s difficulties in casting the Ring make him more considerate to singers? Perhaps; but it’s also the concentration of age and experience, and it greatly enhances the work’s unique atmosphere. For many reasons, Parsifal remains controversial, but is also, at its best, the most grippingly transcendent experience Wagner created. 

     

     

  • BBC Concert Orchestra announces new principal guest conductor

    classical-music.com | Wed, 20 Nov 2019 13:13:25 +0000

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    Anna-Maria Helsing has been appointed principal guest conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, on a three-year contract. The Finnish musician is one of the Nordic countries' leading conductors.

    When she joined the Oulu Symphony Orchestra in 2010, she became the first woman to be appointed chief conductor of a Finnish symphony orchestra. Helsing’s first appearances with the BBC Concert Orchestra were in January 2019 at the Watford Colosseum, where she conducted a programme featuring violinist Jennifer Pike, and in June 2019 at the Southbank Centre in London.

    'I am both delighted and thrilled at the prospect of further developing my collaboration with the BBC Concert Orchestra as their new principal guest conductor,' says Helsing. 'The orchestra, with so many high calibre musicians, offers exciting artistic opportunities and I can hardly wait to explore what we can achieve together.'

    Helsing joins a team of BBC Concert Orchestra conductors that currently comprises Bramwell Tovey, Barry Wordsworth and Keith Lockhart. She'll also join several fellow Finns in the current family of BBC orchestral conductors, with Sakari Oramo and Dalia Stasevska at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and John Storgårds at the BBC Philharmonic.

    Her first engagement with the BBC Concert Orchestra as principal conductor designate will take place at Maida Vale on 13 December 2019, live on BBC Radio 3’s Afternoon Concert. Future appearances include a family concert entitled ‘Musical Roots’ at the Southbank on 22 February 2020.

  • Five of the best works by Thea Musgrave

    classical-music.com | Wed, 20 Nov 2019 09:00:54 +0000

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    Clarinet Concerto (1968)

    This single-movement concerto is, writes Musgrave, an exploration of a ‘dramatic-abstract’ idea. So think theatrical, but without a story. It was premiered by clarinettist Gervase de Peyer, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Colin Davis.

     

     

    Mary, Queen of Scots (1977)

    Thea Musgrave’s acclaimed fourth opera explores what happened to Mary Stuart between 1561, when she had returned to Scotland a widow, and 1568, when she sought protection in England. The libretto is based on the play Moray by Amalia Elguera.

     

     

    Phoenix Rising (1997)

    This vibrant orchestral piece, with a spotlight on timpani and horn, was performed at this year’s BBC Proms to celebrate Musgrave’s 90th. It features her trademark dramatic flair – and a touch of humour too.

     

     

    Night Windows (2007)

    ‘Walking down a darkened street it’s hard to resist looking in through lighted windows and catching a glimpse of other people’s lives…’ Tantalising Edward Hopper-scenes blossom in this chamber piece written for oboist Nicholas Daniel.

     

     

    The Voices of our Ancestors (2014)

    Drawing inspiration from the Indian Rigveda, this piece for chorus and orchestra uses texts in a host of languages, including Latin, Hebrew and Persian, that explore what it means to be alive.

  • Kanye West announces first opera

    classical-music.com | Tue, 19 Nov 2019 14:38:29 +0000

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    Kanye West has announced that he is staging his first ever opera. Taking to Twitter to share a photograph of the golden invitation artwork, the US rapper (and husband of Kim Kardashian) revealed that his Nebuchadnezzar will open next week in Los Angeles.

    Little is known about the work, save for the engraving etched at the bottom of the artwork: ‘Music with Sunday Service, Peter Collins & Infinities Song’. It is believed, however, that gospel and hip hop will be at its core, just as they were in West’s recently released album, Jesus Is King.

    The opera, named after the longest-reigning king of ancient Babylon, is not the first time that West has engaged with the genre: in May 2016, he and Kardashian attended a performance of Verdi’s La traviata at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome. They also went to Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach in 2013.

    Directed by Italian performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, Nebuchadnezzar will be premiered at the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, on 24 November.

  • Free Download: Benjamin Hochman leads Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17

    classical-music.com | Tue, 19 Nov 2019 10:00:00 +0000

    ‘Hochman doesn’t so much impose an interpretative overview as allow the music room to breathe with disarming naturalness’

    This week’s free download is the third movement, Allegro – Presto, from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17, performed by pianist Benjamin Hochman and the English Chamber Orchestra. It was recorded on Avie and was awarded four stars for performance and five for recording in the December issue of BBC Music Magazine.

    DOWNLOAD INSTRUCTIONS:

    If you'd like to enjoy our free weekly download simply log in or sign up to our website.

    Once you've done that, return to this page and you'll be able to see a 'Download Now' button on the picture above – simply click on it to download your free track.

    If you experience any technical problems please email support@classical-music.com. Please reference 'Classical Music Free Download', and include details of the system you are using and your location. If you are unsure of what details to include please take a screenshot of this page.

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  • The Music of Hildegard von Bingen

    classical-music.com | Mon, 18 Nov 2019 10:00:51 +0000

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    Hildegard von Bingen was one of the very first named composers, and among her extraordinary achievements in different fields, it is her music above all, that has given her lasting fame. Mostly ignored, by music text books and dictionaries as well as performers until late in the last century – a fate common to most female composers – she was resurrected thanks to various early-music pioneers. 
     

    In 1979, director Philip Pickett and the New London Consort were among the first to revive her music. And borrowing its title from a line in Scivias, the best-selling 1985 A Feather on the Breath of God recording by Gothic Voices, directed by the scholar-musician Christopher Page, transformed Hildegard’s modern reputation.

    ·     Hildegard von Bingen: A Feather on the Breath of God
     

    Important recordings by Barbara Thornton and Sequentia, Anonymous 4 and others are central to Hildegard’s story.

     

    Music in her time was perceived as the mirror of divine order. Before the Fall, Adam’s voice was in tune with the natural harmony of the cosmos, the Music of the Spheres. As Hildegard wrote: ‘For, before he sinned, his voice had the sweetness of all musical harmony’. 

    For post-lapsarian humans, singing praises to God was a way to address that loss. Written in one line and probably sung in unmeasured time, her chant reflected the groupings of words, rather than following an imposed rhythm. 

    Most performers, unable to read music or sharing from a single copy, would have committed the music to memory. One reason compositions began to be written down around this period was in response to the Church’s desire to control the liturgy – though it is hard to see how Hildegard’s often ecstatic, decorative vocal line and glittering, poetic texts obeyed anyone’s idea of order and restraint.

    The two chief bodies of work are the morality play Ordo Virtutum and the Symphonia, songs set to Hildegard’s own texts on a wide range or religious subjects from the Virgin Mary, to angels, saints, martyrs, confessors and their numerous feast days.

     

    Certain imagery recurs, always in service to the sacred purpose: greenness (viriditas), growth, fertility, flowers, jewels, precious metals, fire, purity, womanhood and Christ as husband and lover (often using erotic language from the Song of Songs). 

    O Ecclesia celebrates St Ursula and her 11,000 virgin martyrs, who reject marriage on earth and await God ‘with desire’. Rhapsody, upward leaps (often of rising fifths) and a sense of improvisation make Hildegard’s music instantly recognisable.

    So many questions jostle to be asked concerning Hildegard’s music. Few have categorical answers. For listeners or performers alike today, an act of enquiry is essential to the way we approach her work. 

    How did it sound? Who sang it? Did the single line of chant have an instrumental accompaniment? Was the music known beyond the walls of her monastery? Who notated it? Was it written down at the time of composition or gathered later? Is it like other music of the time? Can we even be sure she wrote it? If it wasn’t her, then who did write it? 

    This is not to suggest any scepticism in describing Hildegard as a composer, but to ask what it meant to be a composer at a time when art was made to serve God. The names of artists and makers who painted church walls or carved in wood or stone, or made glass or, too, wrote music, are forgotten.

  • The Life of Hildegard von Bingen

    classical-music.com | Fri, 15 Nov 2019 10:00:00 +0000

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    You may think there were many people called Hildegard von Bingen: the one who catalogued the animals, birds, fish, plants, trees and precious metals of her native German Rhineland; the one whose medical theories are still valued by holistic therapists today; the one who invented her own, mysterious language of 900 words, its intention a continuing debate among scholars. 

    Perhaps more famous is the writer, theologian and abbess, whose bold, arresting visions – many depicted in illuminated manuscripts – reflected her own fervent beliefs; who founded her own monastery; who stood up to monks, bishops, popes and emperors across Europe, the scourge of a corrupt Church, earning her the name ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’.

    Finally, there is Hildegard the musician: one of the first named composers and the woman who concerns us here. We cannot separate these strands of Hildegard’s long and eventful life any more than she could herself.     
     


    In certain respects, her biography is well documented. The facts we know give us vital context to grasp how a barely educated woman could move so relatively freely in the highest echelons of medieval life. However, frustratingly little is known about her musical interests or practice.
     

    Hildegard was born in Alzey in the wine-growing region of Rheinhessen in 1098, though with an almost mystical respect for the harmony of round numbers, she herself recorded the date as 1100. 

    Her parents were land owners, middle-ranking, but not grand. Likely to have been the tenth child, she was given as a tithe to the church, either at eight or 14. Immediately, her childhood acquires fascination. The habit of donating a child, a voluntary form of tax, was relatively common, but Hildegard had already proved herself an exception. 

    At a young age, and throughout her life, she had visions, believed to be sent from God. These set her apart, in every sense. (In our own time, the British neurologist Oliver Sacks suggested these visions, which were accompanied by severe, debilitating physical symptoms, were akin to migraines.)  
     

    Wrenched from her family, she was enclosed as an anchoress with another well-born, older girl, Countess Jutta von Sponheim – they lived in a cell alongside, but segregated from, monks in the hillside abbey of Disibodenberg. The idea of anchorage was to be ‘buried’ from the world and rise again in immortality through sequestration and prayer. This would be Hildegard’s home, and mode of existence, for more than three decades.

    Remote though this existence sounds, political and religious life in 12th-century Europe had a direct impact on Hildegard’s life. It was the time of Crusades, pilgrimage, cathedral building; the era of the grand monasteries of Cluny, religious fervour – and attendant profiteering and abuse of power by clergy. Monastic life, in its timetable of work and prayer, was yoked to the Rule of St Benedict. 

    Yet monasteries were also places of learning, and of refuge for travellers and the sick: monks and nuns were secluded from the world, but the world came to them. Women, for a brief period in history, could hold a fair degree of power. (This would diminish by the end of Hildegard’s life, when universities, closed to women, began to flourish.)
     


    Hildegard’s full story, rich in episode and colour, can only be told here in highlights. A turning point was the death of Jutta, who had given her a rudimentary education, perhaps in music as well as Latin. A number of other young women (and their all-too useful dowries) having arrived at the anchorage in the intervening years, Hildegard now succeeded Jutta as abbess. 

    By now she was in her 40s, with a growing sense of purpose. She began to write her best-known theological work, Scivias(or Know the Way), assisted by her secretary and friend, the monk Volmar. Moreover she also, according to the Vita Sanctae Hildegardis (Life of St Hildegard) written by two monks during and after her lifetime, began composing music for the first time – for her nuns to sing as part of the Divine Office.

    Causing some shock among her colleagues, Hildegard left Disibodenberg and founded her own monastery at Rupertsberg, on the banks of the Rhine, where it meets the river Nahe, at Bingen. Now, as then, one of the Rhine’s busiest junctions, it was a canny choice. She wanted more room and prominence. The wealthy families who gave their daughters to the church wanted greater comfort and physical protection. 

    It was the start of a radically different stage of life, in which she travelled throughout Europe, met leading figures of the day, debated, sermonised, wrote hundreds of letters (which have survived, and now exist in a modern edition).


    Hildegard von Bingen, because of her celebrity and achievements, her writings and visions and, above all, her music, is remembered. She died in 1179 aged 81, after battles with her health and with the Church, weary of ‘this present life’. When she passed away, two arcs of colour reportedly illuminated the sky as ‘the holy virgin gave her happy soul to God’, a fitting miracle for one who, more than 800 years later, in 2012, would be made a saint.

    Her spirit lives on, as fierce, defiant, creative and brilliant as ever.
     

     

  • Who were Clara and Robert Schumann’s children?

    classical-music.com | Thu, 14 Nov 2019 09:43:42 +0000

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    Marie Schumann (1841-1929) devoted herself to her mother, who relied heavily on her support, both personally and professionally – Marie was chief teaching assistant for her piano class in Frankfurt. Eugenie Schumann recalled: ‘Thanks to Marie, [Clara] could live entirely for her profession, untroubled by the onerous demands of everyday life, which were kept from her so as not to hinder her in the pursuit of her art… My mother fully repaid her devotion with tenderest love, to which gratitude gave a touch of pathos.’

    Elise Schumann (1843-1928) also served as a teaching assistant to Clara and in 1877 married the businessman Louis Sommerhoff. After two years in the US, she settled in Frankfurt, teaching the piano.

     

     

    Julie Schumann (1845-72) drew the special affection of Brahms, to the point that he was somewhat in love with her. When Julie married Count Vittorio Amadeo Radicati di Marmorito in 1869, Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody was his wedding present to them. Julie was in a delicate state of health – like Felix, she suffered from tuberculosis – but she died giving birth to her third child.

    Emil Schumann (1846-47) died tragically at the age of just one.

     

     

    Ludwig Schumann (1848-99) succumbed to mental illness at the age of 20. He was confined thereafter to an asylum at Colditz. His mother did not visit.

    Ferdinand Schumann (1849-91) was the only one of the Schumann descendants to pass on their name. He worked as a clerk and married Antonie Deutsch, with whom he had seven children. He appears to have been cursed with some of the family’s mental health issues: he became addicted to drugs and died at 42. Clara provided for his family.

     

     

    Eugenie Schumann (1851-1938) was a teaching assistant to her mother, and later a piano teacher in her own right. Her lifelong partner was the singer Marie Fillunger; Clara proved remarkably accepting of this then-unusual situation. Eugenie’s memoirs are essential reading. One of her earliest memories is of watching an energetic young man performing acrobatics on the banisters of the Schumanns’ home in Düsseldorf to entertain the children; it was, of course, Johannes Brahms.

    Felix Schumann (1854-79) was born after his father was hospitalised and Clara named him after their late friend Mendelssohn. Felix showed talent for music and writing; Brahms, his godfather, set some of his poems to music, notably Mein Liebe ist grün. His death aged 25 came as a terrible blow to Clara – and also to Brahms.

     

  • Four of the best rule-breaking musicians

    classical-music.com | Wed, 13 Nov 2019 09:28:25 +0000

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    Nigel Kennedy - violinist

    From wearing Aston Villa strips to expletive-laden banter, Kennedy is nothing if unpredictable. Generous to a fault with his encores, audiences have been known to miss the last bus home. You’re never quite sure what you’re in for with Nige – that’s part of the magic.

     

     

    Martin Fröst - clarinettist

    Among the many groundbreaking projects the Swedish clarinettist has dreamt up through the years, 2015’s Dollhouse is perhaps his most arresting. Taking on the roles of player, conductor, soloist and actor, Fröst used lighting and props to create a visual feast of a journey for his audiences.

     

     

    Matthew Barley - cellist

    In 2013, Barley travelled ‘Around Britten’ to celebrate the composer’s centenary. But this was no ordinary tour. Barley scoured the country for some extraordinary venues including a cave, a lighthouse and a ruined castle. The concert included improvisations, electronics, plus animations to accompany Britten’s Third Cello Suite.

     

     

    Aurora Orchestra

    Throwing caution to the wind in 2017, the Aurora Orchestra decided to start performing selected works by heart. The combination of discipline and novelty won the ensemble new fans, including those curious to see if the orchestra would make it through Beethoven’s Eroica unscathed…

     

  • Free Download: Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence

    classical-music.com | Tue, 12 Nov 2019 10:00:00 +0000

    'They emphasise the daring unconventionality of Tchaikovsky's writing, while managing to tame its quasi-orchestral dimensions by employing the widest possible dynamic range with a partiuclarly appealing velvety sound in the quietest passages'

    This week's free download is the third movement, Allegro moderato, of Tchaikovsky's String Sextet in D minor 'Souvenir de Florence', performed by Quatuor Danel with violist Vladimír Bukač and cellist Petr Prause. It was recorded on CPO and was awarded four stars for both performance and recording in the December issue of BBC Music Magazine.

    DOWNLOAD INSTRUCTIONS:

    If you'd like to enjoy our free weekly download simply log in or sign up to our website.

    Once you've done that, return to this page and you'll be able to see a 'Download Now' button on the picture above – simply click on it to download your free track.

    If you experience any technical problems please email support@classical-music.com. Please reference 'Classical Music Free Download', and include details of the system you are using and your location. If you are unsure of what details to include please take a screenshot of this page.

    read more

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