The Open Ears Project

WQXR & WNYC Studios

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.

  • 24 minutes 36 seconds
    Janna Levin on Mozart’s Unfinished Ambitions

    Janna Levin is a theoretical cosmologist and professor of astronomy and physics at Barnard College in New York City, specializing in the study of black holes. A Guggenheim Fellow, she’s authored several books on the topics of space, mathematics, and the impassioned people that study them; her latest book, “Black Hole Survival Guide,” allows readers to imagine an encounter with a black hole. 

    In the final episode of this season of The Open Ears Project, Janna Levin uses the music of Mozart to venture into the world of perfect circles, spacetime, and the drive to reach a platonic ideal. She muses on the benefits of limitations and rules, and how they have led to some of the most revolutionary scientific discoveries and works of art, from Einstein’s theory of relativity to Mozart’s unfinished Requiem Mass. 

    This recording of Mozart’s Requiem was provided courtesy of the New York Philharmonic.

    17 June 2024, 8:00 am
  • 15 minutes 52 seconds
    Hanna Arie-Gaifman on Bach and Survival

    Hanna Arie-Gaifman served as the director of the Tisch Center for the Arts at the 92nd Street Y for over 20 years, where she produced countless multidisciplinary projects, cementing 92NY’s place as a leading literary and performance art venue in New York City. Before then, Aire-Gaifman worked around the world as an arts administrator, linguist, and professor. 

    In this episode, Gaifman shares why Bach’s Sarabande from the English Suite No. 5 reminds her of her late cousin, Zuzana Růžičková, who survived the Terezin concentration camp during World War II and went on to become an acclaimed harpsichordist.

    In this episode, you'll hear a performance of the Sarabande on the piano by András Schiff from his 1988 Decca recording of the Bach English Suites, as well as performance on the harpsichord by Zuzana Růžičková, courtesy of Arie-Gaifman.

    10 June 2024, 8:00 am
  • 11 minutes 49 seconds
    Caroline Shaw on Mendelssohn and Possibility

    Caroline Shaw is a tireless musician, active as a violinist, vocalist, producer, and composer. She’s won multiple Grammy awards and, along with Kendrick Lamar, is one of the youngest recipients of the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Throughout her career, she has continuously experimented across genres, her collaborations spanning from the likes of Nas and Rosalía to So Percussion and Roomful of Teeth.  


    With all her acclaim today, it is hard to imagine that Shaw was once just a kid at band camp. In this episode of the Open Ears Project, Shaw recalls performing Felix Mendelssohn’s “Octet for Strings” as a teenager at summer camp, an experience which sparked her lifelong love of chamber music.  


    This recording of Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-Flat Major was performed by the Gringolts Quartet and Meta4 from the 2020 Bis record, “Octets.”


    3 June 2024, 8:00 am
  • 24 minutes 41 seconds
    Nick Ferrone on Why Barber’s “Adagio” Gets a Bad Rap

    By day, Nick Ferrone is a Brooklyn real estate agent, but on most Saturday nights, he can be found playing the harmonica at Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook. As the seventh of eight kids, Ferrone reaped the benefits of being exposed to records that most kids his age weren’t listening to, including the one that inspired him to start playing the harmonica: “Giant Step” by Taj Mahal. He also serves as a board member for the Hillside Dog Park and is a passionate fine pencil artist. 

    In this episode, Ferrone shares his love for Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and explains why he thinks it gets a bad rap for being too funereal. He describes the beauty he hears in the music and reflects on how it accompanied him through his child’s heart surgery.

    27 May 2024, 8:00 am
  • 13 minutes 44 seconds
    Lucy Boynton on Chopin and Getting Into Character

    You might know actress Lucy Boynton from the television mini-series “The Ipcress File” and films like “Chevalier” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” She grew up with a music-loving family who always had something playing in the background. Here, Boynton shares a favorite piano piece by Chopin and reflects on the power of music to establish tone in filmmaking and to help her get into character. 

    This episode features Chopin’s Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1: “Larghetto”, as performed by Maria João Pires from her 1996 Deutsche Grammophon recording “Chopin — The Nocturnes.”

    20 May 2024, 8:00 am
  • 17 minutes 52 seconds
    Martha Lane Fox on Perseverance and Beethoven

    If anyone can claim the title of Renaissance Woman, it is Martha Lane Fox. Though she gained prominence during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, her career has since led her serve as the Chancellor of Open University in the United Kingdom; to sit on the boards of companies likeChanel, WeTransfer, and Twitter; and, in 2013, she became the youngest female member to serve in the House of Lords.

    In this episode, Lane Fox reflects on her journey of recovery after a car accident in Morocco and explains how the “Prisoners’ Chorus” from Beethoven’s “Fidelio” informs her passion for prison reform.

    This Deutsche Grammophon recording of Beethoven’s “Prisoners’ Chorus” from Fidelio is performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Chorus under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.

    13 May 2024, 8:00 am
  • 25 minutes 31 seconds
    Steve Reich on Why Medieval Music Sounds So Fresh

    Steve Reich is one of the most important composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. A leader in developing and popularizing what many describe as minimalist music — but which Reich has often preferred to describe as music that unfolds over a gradual process — his music helped reassert the value of tonality and sonority within newly composed concert music and influenced generations of musicians. 

    In this episode, Reich recalls the first time he heard the music of French medieval composer Pérotin, without whose influence some of his music “never would have happened,” and he reflects on why early music sounds so fresh to contemporary ears. 

    The recording of “Viderunt Omnes” featured on this episode was performed by The Hilliard Ensemble on the 1989 ECM New Series album, “Perotin.”

    6 May 2024, 8:00 am
  • 12 minutes 32 seconds
    Anne-Sophie Mutter on Why Bach Is Always the Answer

    “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” is one of Bach’s best known works. For acclaimed violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, it has been part of her life since she was a child and has accompanied her through some of her life’s most important moments. As she puts it, “Bach is always the answer — for the joyous moments in life as much as for the moments where you doubt where you stand and what tomorrow brings.”

    This episode features recordings of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” performed by Daniil Trifonov on the 2022 Deutsche Grammophon album, “BACH: The Art of Life;” and by The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge on the 1998 Decca album “The King’s Collection.”

    29 April 2024, 8:00 am
  • 16 minutes 21 seconds
    Víkingur Ólafsson on the Unpredictable Futurism of Rameau

    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

    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.”

    22 April 2024, 8:00 am
  • 19 minutes 35 seconds
    Garth Greenwell on Finding Refuge in the Music of Britten and Pears

    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.”

    15 April 2024, 8:00 am
  • 21 minutes 44 seconds
    Jennifer Egan on Chopin's Narrative Masterclass

    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." 

    8 April 2024, 8:00 am
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