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The Open Ears Project

Author: WQXR & WNYC Studios

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Part mixtape, part sonic love-letter, The Open Ears Project is a podcast in which people share the classical track that means the most to them and why. Created by journalist and former WQXR Creative Director Clemency Burton-Hill, each episode offers a brief and soulful glimpse into human lives, helping us to hear this music — and each other — differently. Guests from the worlds of film, books, dance, comedy and fashion as well as firefighters, taxi drivers, and teachers share cherished musical memories and remind us that extraordinary things happen when we simply stop and listen.

Transcripts are posted to individual episode pages as they become available.

The Open Ears Project is produced by WQXR and WNYC Studios.
44 Episodes
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All classical musicians are devoted to the art of reinterpretation — of trying to make the old feel new again. Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson actually manages to pull it off. Whether he’s performing keyboard music hundreds of years old or a piece hot off the press, one has the feeling that they’ve never heard this music before, or this music played in this way. As Ólafsson puts it, “I have this feeling that everything I do is contemporary.”In this episode, Ólafsson reflects on some of his earliest musical memories, what it was like to grow up amid the harsh and unpredictable beauty of Iceland, and how discovering the keyboard music of Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau changed his life.To learn more about Víkingur Ólafsson and his latest recording, J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, visit his website at www.vikingurolafsson.com. This episode of The Open Ears Project had additional production assistance from Curtis Macdonald. The recording of “Le Rappel des Oiseaux” featured was performed by Víkingur Ólafsson on the 2020 Deutsche Grammophon album, “Debussy · Rameau.”
By now, Garth Greenwell is an award-winning author, poet, literary critic, and teacher of writing whose novels include “What Belongs To You” and “Cleanness.” But his first creative aspiration was as a musician: He attended the Interlochen Academy for the Arts and, later, the Eastman School of Music, focusing on vocal performance. In this episode, Greenwell recalls his introduction to music and meditates on his identity as a gay man growing up in rural Kentucky. A high school choir teacher gave Greenwell his first vocal lessons and directed him to the music of Benjamin Britten as performed by Britten’s partner, Peter Pears. Despite the grim themes of their song cycle “Winter Words,” Greenwell listened to this music over and over again, finding within it his first example of queer love. Greenwell writes about books, music, and more at his substack To A Green Thought.This episode contains a discussion of sexuality-based discrimination and a quote of a homophobic slur. Listener discretion is advised.This recording of Benjamin Britten’s Winter Words is performed by tenor Peter Pears in the 1972 Decca album “Britten, Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten – Winter Words / Seven Sonnets Of Michelangelo.”
Jennifer Egan has spent a lifetime thinking about what makes a good story — to good effect. Her novels have received many awards and recognitions, including the Pulitzer Prize for “A Visit From the Good Squad.” Its companion book and her latest work, “The Candy House,” was named one of The New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2022. They say that one of the best ways to become a good writer is to read, but in this episode, Egan demonstrates what writers can learn from other art forms. For her, the music of Chopin exemplifies how “surprise, inevitability, variability [and] multiple fronts of action” can craft an unforgettable narrative — even without words.The performance of Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23 featured in this episode is by Krystian Zimerman and comes from his 1988  Deutsche Grammophon record, "Chopin - 4 Balladen - Barcarolle - Fantasie." 
Rowan Williams is a British theologian and poet. From 2003-2012, he served as the Archbishop of Canterbury — a role that placed him, along with the British monarch, at the head of the Anglican Church. As one of today’s most influential religious leaders, Williams has often been the subject of both praise and controversy for his outspoken views, including as a critic of the Iraq War and a proponent for LGBTQ+ inclusion. In the years since Williams first heard Bach’s Cello Suites as a college student, he has returned to them again and again. In this episode, Williams explores the connection between music and joy, and explains how listening to Bach feels similar to religious contemplation.This recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite for Cello Solo No. 1 in G featured on this episode comes from Jian Wang’s 2005 Deutsche Grammophon record, “Bach: The Cello Suites.”
Dexter Filkins is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, former Iraq War correspondent for the New York Times, and author of the bestselling book, “The Forever War.” He’s currently a staff writer for The New Yorker.In this episode, Filkins recalls how Ravel’s music gave him respite during his “nightmare years” covering the war in Iraq. He explains how Ravel, who served as an ambulance driver during World War I, balances suffering and hope in the second movement of his Piano Concerto in G Major.  The performance of Ravel’s "Adagio" from his Concerto for Piano in G Major featured on this episode comes from the 1998 Deutsche Grammophon album "Ravel: Piano Concertos; Valses nobles et sentimentales," featuring pianist Krystian Zimerman as soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of Pierre Boulez. 
As one of the leading conductors of our time, Marin Alsop has collected a lot of “firsts”: She’s the first woman to head a major orchestra in the United States, South America, Austria and the United Kingdom. Throughout her career, she has also tirelessly advocated for equitable music education and for professional opportunities for other female conductors. In this episode, Alsop talks about her deep admiration for Beethoven and why, despite being one of the most performed classical pieces ever and written 200 years ago, his Symphony No. 9 (the “Ode to Joy”) remains fresh to modern ears. For her, Beethoven is not just a model musician — but also a model for “living on the planet as a human being.”The performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 featured in this episode was provided courtesy of the New York Philharmonic.
Nathalie Joachim is a Grammy-nominated flutist, vocalist and composer. She is the co-founder of the acclaimed flute-meets-electronica duo Flutronix, as well as the composer of the evening-length work “Fanm d’Ayiti,” which explores her heritage and, more broadly, women’s voices in Haiti. Her recently-released album “Ki moun ou ye” (“Which person are you?”) continues the musically-grounded investigation into identity. In this episode, Joachim recalls a formative experience with the music of Brahms, connecting her attraction to his music with the rhythmically inventive music of her family’s native Haiti.The performance of Brahms Symphony No. 3 used in this episode features the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Alan Gilbert. Recording provided courtesy of the New York Philharmonic.
Elizabeth Day is an author, broadcaster, and host of the podcast “How to Fail,” where she interviews guests about what they have learned from failure. In this episode, Day reflects on a performance that has guided her through different stages of her life: Jacqueline Du Pré’s rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor. From the disappointment of a Valentine's Day gone awry to the devastating loss of a former partner, Day has turned to the depths of beauty and pain evoked by this music and continually relied upon it to help her feel understood amidst the tumult of grief.If you’d like to hear a full performance of this work, you can find it on the Warner Classics Website.This performance of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor features soloist Jacqueline Du Pré from the Warner Classics record “The Great Concertos. Elgar, Saint-Saëns, Haydn, Dvořák, Haydn.”
Damien Sneed is an award-winning musician, conductor, composer and arts educator who works across classical, jazz, R&B and other genres. When he was five years old, Sneed’s parents told him he was adopted. He walks us through the story of how, through a series of dreams and coincidences, he eventually reunited with his biological family and learned to accept the complexity of life and music alike. In this episode, Sneed reflects on how playing Liszt’s Étude No 3, “Un Sospiro,” for both his biological and adoptive mothers allowed him to finally loosen his grip around ideas of adoption, rejection and acceptance.This performance of Franz Liszt’s “Concert Etude No. 3” is by André Watts from his EMI record, “André Watts Plays Liszt - Album 2." The performance of “The Will of God” is by Karen Clarke Sheard and Kierra Sheard from the Island Black Music record “Finally Karen."
Deborah Frances-White is a comedian, writer, and host of “The Guilty Feminist” podcast, where she explores the balancing act between feminist idealism and human imperfection.In this episode, White reflects on her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness and shares a story about the first time she saw a performance of Mozart’s opera “Così fan tutte.” On the train home from the performance, she shared a serendipitous encounter with a stranger that could have been lifted from an opera plot. To this day, when White listens to “Soave si il vento” — a trio from the opera meaning “may the wind be gentle” — it evokes for her “the longing and the loss for all the loves that might have been.” This performance of “Soave sia il vento” comes from the 1997 EMI recording of “Così fan tutte” by the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Riccardo Muti.
Tom Hiddleston is an actor beloved around the world for his roles in film, television, and the stage, most notably for his portrayal of the Norse god Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Before all that, he was a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, balancing both high hopes and uncertainty for his future.For the debut episode of the long-awaited second season of "The Open Ears Project," Hiddleston recalls a powerful memory from those days. While driving to a hiking spot, Arvo Pärt’s "Spiegel im Spiegel" played on the radio, synchronizing with the landscape to evoke a sense of the eternal and the power of art to remind us of our humanity.The performance of "Spiegel im Spiegel" featured in this  episode is by violinist Nicola Benedetti and pianist Alexi Grynyuk, from Benedetti's 2009 album, "Fantasie."
The Open Ears Project returns for a new season on February 12! From tales of memorable moments in nature and fleeting encounters with strangers – to recollections of music that helped in difficult times – The Open Ears Project features people sharing a personal story about the classical track that means the most to them, and why. This season’s guests include a wide range of voices – many in creative fields – including actors, authors, and journalists, as well classical and genre-busting musicians and conductors about the music that inspires their journey. Part mixtape, part sonic love letter, each episode creates a moment to reflect on the question, what if we made a habit of opening our ears — to classical music and to each other? Whether listeners are seeking an introduction to new pieces or encounters with powerful storytelling, listeners will enjoy brief but enduring meditations with artistic works and soulful stories spanning the range of the human experience. The Open Ears Project was created by Clemency Burton-Hill. This season will be hosted by Terrance McKnight. New episodes drop every Monday so listeners can start their week on the right note.
Actor Tom Hiddleston reminisces about his childhood love of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker and reveals that he still turns to the Russian Dance whenever he needs a shot of vitality in his day.
For the final episode in our opening season of The Open Ears Project, relationship therapist Esther Perel talks about the first time she heard Fauré’s Requiem as a young woman and how it seemed to “understand” an inexpressible sadness she was carrying inside her. She describes with great tenderness the way music connects her to her mother, a survivor of the Holocaust, and how this piece transports her to something akin to a religious experience. Keep listening after the episode to hear the full track.
Project Coordinator Krystal Hawes explores the perfect imperfection of Maurice Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte. Keep listening after the episode to hear the full track.
28. Dessa on Patience

28. Dessa on Patience

2019-10-0719:56

Rapper Dessa discusses how the craft, structure and emotion of Bach's Chaconne in D minor resonates through her life and work, revealing dynamic connections between classical and rap music.
Actor Jesse Eisenberg talks about how a trip to Poland led him to discover not only more about his family history and the holocaust, but the music of Frédéric Chopin, in particular the Etude Opus 10, No. 1. Keep listening after the episode to hear the full track.
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon gives moving insight into his long and inspiring journey with the music of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Keep listening after the episode to hear the full track.
TV producer Megan Reid talks about Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel helped spark a lifelong obsession with ballet. Keep listening after the episode to hear the full track.
Broadcaster Terrance McKnight links family, art, a late Beethoven piano bagatelle, and the extraordinary poetry of Langston Hughes.
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Comments (4)

tina mirali

Here I experienced the most magical moments hearing people’s experiences about their favorite piece of music. Thank you for such an amazing combination of great music :))

Mar 15th
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Owen Kan

this is definitely one of the best podcasts I've ever heard. Each episode has such an effect on me in different ways. hearing people's lives with classical music and how a song has affected them brings me a strange sense of calm. it makes me feel warm almost.

Oct 19th
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Aimee Ilibagiza Mutabazi

Wow! This is probably the most serendipitous moment ever! Fauré's requiem is my favourite of classical music. I was playing it over the past weekend for my parents, telling them how heavenly it is. When I thought of contributing to the OEP, this would have been my contribution. During mass on Sunday, the homily was about angels and their purpose of perpetual glorification towards God; that the sanctus is one moment where we join in with them. I could honestly go on... But I'm so grateful to hear today's episode. Hear it from Esther (who helps heal relationships)... I'm in awe. This was truly a lovely kiss from the universe. Thank you OEP.

Oct 9th
Reply

Paul

These are great. I was surprised by how moving these short little stories were, along with the music, of course. Keep them coming.

Sep 14th
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