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July 9, 2020

UMS Favorites at NPR’s Tiny Desk

Jake Gibson
By Jake Gibson

With over 800 recorded concerts and a collective 2 billion views, NPR’s Tiny Desk may be one of the most popular performance spaces in the world. The online concert series is known for hosting a wide range of artists; indie bands, hip-hop artists, and string quartets are all welcome. At the Tiny Desk, it is almost an expectation for artists to push their limits to create a unique presentation for the quirky NPR offices. After 12 years, the Tiny Desk series shows the possibility and potential of exciting online performance.

As we wait together for a safe return to our venues, enjoy these nine performances from past UMS artists playing NPR’s Tiny Desk.

Max Richter

Max Richter is joined by members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble for three short works. The concert includes “On the Nature of Daylight,” a piece that has been featured in a number of movies including Shutter Island, Arrival, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Joyce DiDonato

Opera star and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato reimagines “centuries-old Italian love songs” with a jazz band. As NPR writes, “The musical formula for these unorthodox arrangements makes room for typical jazz solos while DiDonato molds her phrases to the flexible rhythms and inserts old-school trills and flamboyant roulades.” This concert offers the chance to see Joyce at perhaps her most daring, playful, and fun.

Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cécile and Sulivan Fortner grace the NPR offices with intimate duets. The set begins with three love songs from her third album, For One to Love, and ends with an acapella rendition “Omie Wise,” a traditional American murder ballad.

Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan

The four musicians from the star-studded Goat Rodeo Sessions come together to play three songs from the 2011 recording. The performance opens with “Quarter Chicken Dark”, which Ma, Meyer, and Thile performed as an encore during their 2017 performance in Hill Auditorium. This June, the quartet released its follow-up, Not Our First Goat Rodeo.

Lawrence Brownlee

In this Tiny Desk, tenor Lawrence Brownlee performs three African-American spirituals. As NPR writer Tom Huizenga writes, “the heart and soul of this concert is ‘All Night, All Day,’ a performance that swells with a potent combination of tenderness and operatic horsepower. The song speaks of a protective band of angels — angels that Brownlee told the audience are watching over his 3-year-old son Caleb, who’s just been diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder.”

Sam Amidon & Bill Frisell

This Tiny Desk Concert pairs folk singer-songwriter Sam Amidon with the guitarist Bill Frisell for a wonderfully collaborative set. Sam, Bill, and the multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily all have a long history of collaboration with artists across many genres. Sam Amidon has worked with the likes of Nico Muhly, Bon Iver, Nels Cline, and Jason Moran. Bill Frisell has appeared on UMS seasons as a solo performer, bandleader, and sideman with Charles Lloyd. Throughout his career, Frisell has traversed the music world embedding himself in the Downtown jazz scene in New York and the worlds of folk and Americana music.

Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran

In a pairing of the old and new vanguards, Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran offer three meditative duets. NPR Radio host Felix Contreras writes, “you can hear reverence in [Moran’s] duo playing with Lloyd — and you may also notice playing that taps into Lloyd’s ever-present youthful spirit. Together, their performance behind Bob Boilen’s Tiny Desk was as refreshing and energizing as deep meditation.”

Danish String Quartet

When last with UMS in 2015 and 2018, the Danish String Quartet shined in its interpretations of Haydn and Beethoven. For their Tiny Desk, the group showed off another side, performing exquisitely arranged Danish and Scandanavian Folk music. The set is centered around a trio of traditional Danish wedding tunes that date back 400 years.


This hit Ukrainian folk-punk quartet stirs up a mesmerizing sound that melds traditional Ukrainian folk music, African grooves, Eastern colors, and a contemporary, trans-national sensibility that the band calls “ethno-chaos.” Their Tiny Desk Concert perfectly captures the energy and joy they bring to every performance, whether it is for an intimate crowd or a packed Michigan Theater.