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Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

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Two orchestras, a pair of trios, coal miners, Bach, and a Roomful of Teeth await audiences

By John Mark Rafacz

The sixth season of the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State’s Classical Music Project features seven renowned ensembles, including performances by Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra with Chopin International Piano Competition winner Seong-Jin Cho and Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation.

The project, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, aims to raise awareness of classical music programming via university and community concerts and free engagement events.

Things get started with the Sphinx Virtuosi September 29. The orchestra consists of eighteen Black and Latino classical soloists who are alumni of the renowned Sphinx Competition. The ensemble’s Latin Voyages: Viajes Latinos takes audiences on a journey that includes Argentine tango, images of Mexico, and Catalan dance. The program explores string music by composers of Latin heritage.

Warsaw Philharmonic performs October 28 under the baton of Music and Artistic Director Jacek Kaspszyk, who has been at the helm since 2013. Cho, who won the Chopin competition in Warsaw in 2015, is the featured soloist for a piano concerto. Still in his early 20s, the South Korea native also has earned major prizes in Russia and Japan.

Roomful of Teeth, an eight-member vocal ensemble, creates a repertoire without borders. The Grammy Award-winning octet, which performs November 17, has studied Tuvan and Inuit throat singing, yodeling, Korean P’ansori, Georgian and Persian classical singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, and Hindustani music.

A New York Times reviewer calls the ensemble’s first album, released in 2012, “sensually stunning.” In 2013, octet member Caroline Shaw received the Pulitzer Prize for Partita for 8 Voices, a Penn State concert selection.

Three exceptional musicians—pianist Inon Barnatan, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein—come together as a trio January 23. The program features a composition, by Philadelphia’s Joseph Hallman, co-commissioned by the Center for the Performing Arts.

Barnatan, a native of Israel, is the New York Philharmonic’s first artist in association, a three-season appointment featuring concerto and chamber collaborations with the orchestra. Barnatan often appears as a recital partner with Weilerstein.

McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, has collaborated with Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman, Gil Shaham, and Midori. He performed with Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gabriela Montero at President Obama’s first inauguration.

Weilerstein, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship recipient, was the first cellist in thirty years to sign an exclusive contract with Decca Classics. BBC Music named her first album, with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, record of the year.

Another world-class trio—pianist Wu Han, violinist Philip Setzer, and cellist David Finckel—performs February 23.

Han and Finckel, who in 2012 won Musical America’s Musicians of the Year honor, are the artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. They appear at exclusive venues across three continents.

Setzer, a founding member of Emerson String Quartet, has earned acclaim around the world. The Noise of Time, a theatre collaboration between the Emerson and actor/writer/director Simon McBurney about the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, was based on Setzer’s idea.

Toronto’s Tafelmusik returns March 2 with its latest multimedia creation. Using text, music, and projected video and images, J.S. Bach: The Circle of Creation explores the world of the artisans—performers, papermakers, violin carvers, and string spinners—who aided Bach in attaining his genius. The musicians perform the all-Bach program from memory.

Like House of Dreams and The Galileo Project, which Tafelmusik previously performed at the university, The Circle of Creation invigorates the concert experience. “In these hands,” writes a reviewer for The Globe and Mail of Toronto, “Bach’s music feels more alive than ever.”

Bang on a Can All-Stars, which performed Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer at the Center for the Performing Arts in 2009, comes back March 30 for a concert featuring Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Anthracite Fields. The six-member Bang on a Can ensemble is recognized internationally for its dynamic live performances and recordings of some of today’s most innovative music. The amplified group crosses genres freely among classical, jazz, rock, world, and experimental music. Penn State Concert Choir, directed by Christopher Kiver, joins Bang on a Can for the concert.

Wolfe, who grew up in the southeastern Pennsylvania town of Montgomeryville, composes music distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from audiences.

Anthracite Fields follows the life of a Pennsylvania coal miner from his days as a “breaker boy” to family picnics, union protests, weddings, and more. Anthracite Fields, with music and text by Wolfe, includes both the dark echoes of the underground caves and the moments of light in the lives of the miners who persevered. The oratorio won the Pulitzer for composition in 2015, and the recording of the work was nominated for a Grammy Award.

The Bang on a Can musicians will be in residence at Penn State for three days, while Wolfe will be at the University for two days.

The Center for the Performing Arts is part of the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State.
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