In preparation of a post-Tchaikovsky Russia

A recent article brought word of a new initiative in Russia: the passage of a law which would prohibit (or punish those who participate in) the dissemination of information relating to the existence of homosexuality. In short, Russia, in one fell swoop, intends to more or less deny the existence of homosexual citizens—or, at least, to deny that there is such a thing as homosexual behavior.

Being a straight, American man, this news wouldn’t seem to affect me. But there is, as always, a catch: I am not simply a straight, American man, but also a straight, American musician. To be more accurate, I am a classical musician—and that threw this news into even more sharp relief.

Forget, for a moment, the fact that this news does not merely relegate a segment of the population to 2nd class status, but effectively eliminates them altogether! That in itself is worthy of attention from people of all walks of life. But as a musician, my mind was drawn immediately to one name: Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky—or, perhaps we are now to refer to him as ‘The composer formerly known as Tchaikovsky’?—is (or was) a Russian icon. Perhaps no other composer defined romanticism quite as strongly. With his sweeping melodies, colorful use of folk-idiom, brilliant orchestration, rhythmic drive and love of the supernatural, the Romantic Spirit was made perfect in this tragic figure. He is certainly among the greatest of the Russian Romantics—arguably the most accomplished, most famous and most influential. And he stands (or stood) as one of the great Russian spirits: strong, indomitable, complex.

Tchaikovsky was also gay.

His homosexuality played a leading role in his life: it led, ironically, to his marriage to a lovely young woman, which was the very definition of a disaster. This led to a chain reaction: the unconsummated marriage led to a suicide attempt, which led to the 4th symphony, which led to the last two symphonies, which led to musical and cultural immortality. Of course somewhere in there he also found time to write a few ballets—perhaps you’ve heard of Swan Lake and another little ditty which apparently is trotted out during the holiday season, The Nutcracker—along with several tone poems (the supernatural Francesca da Rimini, the ravishing quasi-memoir Cappricio Italian, the sweeping Romeo and Juliet), a repertoire-defining concerto for violin and three for piano and a few operas. He also carried on a most notable affair: a long relationship with his pen-pal, benefactress and dear friend Nahedza von Meck. The two carried on a torrid affair of the heart entirely through letters. That this was sincere (and successful for both parties) is beyond a doubt. The relationship was never physical, for obvious reasons—along with the fact that a stipulation of the agreement was that the two were not to meet. But taken together, it was one of the most important relationships in artistic history.

Here ends the biographical sketch and history lesson, which is of course not the focus of the present text. But it should deliver a clear message: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of the most important composers in music history and an indispensible part of Russia’s cultural landscape.

This is what makes this law so much more difficult for Russians. With the passing of the law, Tchaikovsky faces one of two fates: to be stricken from the record entirely, or to be subject to certain historical revisions.

Let us explore these possibilities. The former would be, at first glance, quite simple. Classical music is dying, anyway, so why not make it a little easier by just erasing a name? Sadly, the reality may not be as simple. Tchaikovsky has a few things named after him in Moscow (and throughout Russia), including a major conservatory and a museum. To change the name of these institutions would likely take time, despite the efficiency for which things in Russia are known to disappear. Such public changes are bound to attract attention (a fact which long ruffled the feathers of old Uncle Joe in his dealings with Shostakovich) and a committee approach would likely allow the memory of Tchaikovsky to linger for a generation or two longer than the authorities would like.

Then there is the matter of his music. Tchaikovsky, as it happens, remains quite popular. What is more, Russian orchestras and musicians are quite good at performing his music. Very good, in fact! There is certainly a wealth of Russian repertoire to take its place—the music of Miaskovsky and Schnittke, for example—but despite the sympathetic view on this matter of law–which is certain to be taken by other progressive countries!—there is a risk that the music if Tchaikovsky may remain in the repertoire of those countries’ finest orchestras. When Russian musicians go abroad, they are likely to be exposed to performances of this forbidden music or even expected to perform it themselves. The only recourse for Russian authorities would therefore be the complete restriction of touring and studies abroad for its finest orchestras and young musicians—quite a difficult thing to enforce.

And this is to say nothing of his ballet music! A ban on Nutcracker would likely deprive ballet companies and young ballet dancers of a long-established repertoire staple, imposing a Siberian winter on the holiday season centerpiece that so many audiences have come to look forward to. This ripple effect would go on and on.

That leaves the latter option of revising history: certain details would have to be omitted or altered. I suppose the memory of poor Ms. Miliukova—the ill-fated Mrs. Tchaikovsky—would fare better under this, but this would likely be the only victory in the matter. To say that Tchaikovsky was such a successful composer because of his sexual orientation would obviously be quite silly. After all, if such behavior allowed for an individual to become a productive member of society, laws such as this would never need to be passed! No, it is obvious that his success was likely to be in spite of his affliction. But in this case, it is no matter: the real point is the previously mentioned domino effect (marriage-suicide attempt-4th symphony) which imparted to his music a new emotional and intellectual depth. Without the suicide attempt, it is unlikely that the 4th symphony would exist as we know it—and we know what led to the attempt! But surely there is a way: perhaps the authorities could come up with an alternative story which is suitable to explain the particular despair (and ultimate triumph) of the 4th.

Yes, the matter of Tchaikovsky is complex and the task for the lawmakers and historians will be daunting. Perhaps it could serve as a reminder that the elimination, subjugation or marginalization of any group of people within a society is a herculean task. Perhaps it would be better, in this case, to allow certain things to continue as they have, or to find sympathy, understanding, compassion and acceptance within our grasp rather than to use our hands to effect iron fisted authoritarianism.

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Beethoven for Boston: Transcript from the opening speech.

Good evening. Welcome and thank you all for being here. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Leonard Bernstein wrote “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more beautifully, more intensely, more devotedly than ever before.” For many of us, what happened here in Boston at the marathon was unthinkable and unspeakable; we searched for answers in the aftermath and we will continue to search for answers for many years. For some of us, the wounds will never fully heal. But there is only one appropriate response—no, two appropriate responses. One is to love: we love to find forgiveness, to find peace, to find the deepest sense of humanity, to find whatever connects us to, well, what is greater than ourselves. And the other is music. Music transcends everything that we use to divide ourselves: it transcends age; it transcends countries, language, race, ethnicity, religion; everything that we use as a reason, as a catalyst, to dislike each other and even to dislike ourselves. Music transcends that and music can heal that. And that is why we’re here tonight.

I’ve been a classical musician all my life and, as I’m sure is the case with many of my colleagues here tonight, I started at a very young age. I knew from that early age that music was my identity—who I was, who I am—my calling. And it has brought me to some wonderful places: I’ve gotten to travel internationally, I’ve gotten to meet some incredible people. And that’s wonderful! It’s one of the privileges of being a musician, of having talent. But with that, with the privilege of performing in great concert halls, working with wonderful colleagues, playing this great music, aside from the hours of dedication that it takes, aside from everything else, requires a tremendous responsibility. This concert this evening was the best way I could think of to try and fulfill that responsibility: to use the gifts that I have and to bring together others who have an equal and greater amount of talent, passion and desire; bring them together to say “No matter what happens, no matter who tries to hurt us, we won’t give in. We won’t be hateful, we won’t be intimidated. We’ll turn to what we can, and we’ll be responsible.”

And all of you, by being here tonight, are taking responsibility as well. You’re taking responsibility by being good citizens, neighbors, friends, teachers, firefighters, husbands, wives, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons; everything that makes being part of a community one of the wonderful things about being a human being. I thank you again. We will now have the Beethoven ‘Symphony No. 9,’ which…says what I’m trying to say a lot better than I’m saying it. I hope that you enjoy it. Thank you again for being here tonight.

Speed isn’t everything! The challenges of Barber’s ‘Adagio.’

I went to the gym this morning. My workout was fairly intense but when I finished I decided to walk the 12 blocks back to my apartment.

With the hot sun beating down on me and my muscles somewhat tired, my legs grew heavy. Climbing the hill that led me towards my avenue suddenly felt like a Herculean task. One step led to another, one foot followed more and more slowly by the other. I became quite aware of the heaviness I now felt in my legs, as if weights were attached to my ankles. Feeling frustrated, I broke into a sprint. Half a block elapsed–then a block, and I was now nearly to the top of the hill. Relieved, I decided to walk. The heaviness returned, accompanied with a new sort of fatigue. I sprinted again–no problem. But as soon as I returned to my andante pace, even with the hill now behind me, the difficulty returned, with each slow step accompanied by a sort of agony.

This is what it is like to conduct Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

It is a mark of maturity and yet a somber day when a young musician realizes that it is easier to play fast than to play slowly. No young violinist begins his practice session eager to work on his legato or the slow movement of his sonata or concerto. Heaven forbid! No, for the young musician it is speed which enthralls the audience, wins competitions and makes the girls swoon. Paganini knew this all too well–not to mention Viotti, Ysaye and other highly violinistic composers. And of course it is not limited to that instrument. The thrill of playing fast is unmistakable–rapid 16th and 32nd notes for strings and piano, double or triple tonguing for winds and brass, endless melismatic runs for singers and…well, just about everything for percussionists.

But to play slow? It hardly seems virtuosic. Playing long, sustained tones seems better suited to the first half hour of a practice session than to be a point of pride. Just ask a violinist the following question: Would you be more excited to play the first movement of a Tchaikovsky symphony or one by Bruckner?

Enter the Barber. It is not a long work by any means and, quite frankly, requires little technical virtuosity (or at least little physical virtuosity–the idea of playing 5 flats is, for a string player, something which requires a certain mental fortitude.) But the Adagio is incredibly virtuosic: it requires an incredible range of emotion and expression, absolute command of physical technique, unusual self-control and the highest levels of musicianship.

The Adagio, you see, is a paradox: It is often presented as an indulgent work, along the lines of the eponymous work by Albinoni (really more inspired by Albinoni than authored by that composer) or Mahler’s Adagietto. And yet when going to the heart of the work one realizes that it is not about self-indulgence but rather self-control. There are moments of complete and utter gratification–it does not require quite the same level of self-denial and patience as, say, Tristan und Isolde–but they are fleeting and somewhat unsatisfying, if not entirely tragic.

To say that it is a work which alludes to certain physical passions may be accurate–indeed, most musicologists and conductors have theorized that it contains certain clues which point to it being a love letter. But this work throws into relief something which we Americans often overlook: namely, the complexity of sexuality and the fact that ‘sex’ isn’t merely a singular physical act. (Disclaimer: I am not about to delve into Freudian theory nor the debate of the US Congress circa 1998.)

To put it more directly: This is not about getting through dinner and a movie on the 3rd date. It is a different sort of self-denial or delayed gratification. This Adagio is about finding a love for self, for acceptance and understanding. It is an invitation, or a hope for an invitation into the deepest emotional places one may have. It is a hope for total intimacy, even if that involves making oneself vulnerable to the point that our very existence may be questioned from all possible angles.

How may one conduct or play this? Well, in a word….slowly. In two words, very slowly. This is a work which searches, probes, thinks, desires, hungers, longs, starves and weeps. But most importantly, it breathes. It never seems fully comfortable. There are three climaxes: the first two (which are nearly identical) allow for a sigh of relief, however short-lived it may be, before moving on in search of…more. The third climax is reached after a prolonged, agonizing build up–but instead of a sigh, we are given a gasp, sharp and cut off all at once.
And what then? What is next? What answer have we been given?

For a work which lasts 7 minutes (though Bernstein and Celibidache could make it last nearly 10!) this is a monumental series of hills. To climb them at a pace of molto adagio shows that hills and valleys are often much more similar than we perceive–and forces us to ask ourselves just how much self-control (and self awareness) we truly possess.

Copland: Appalachian Spring and the miracle of the American Spirit

1943 cannot have been an enjoyable time in which to live.

In Europe, the Third Reich was at the height of its power. From Vichy France to North Africa, its domination seemed complete and as its eye turned east towards Russia, nobody felt safe. The war in the Pacific raged on much as it had the last few years, with no end in sight, no peace to be found. Here at home Americans had become used to the fact that this was now our war, too. As young American men were sent off to battle in distant lands the reach of war was felt on our own Free Soil as war rationing began in earnest.

For a middle-aged man living in New York City, hope cannot have felt entirely natural. It should have been easier to imagine warplanes over Manhattan or U-boats surrounding Cape Cod than to truly believe that peace was possible. And even if that peace should arrive–what then? How could humanity possibly return to any sense of normalcy when such atrocity was being unleashed on such a massive scale?

Yes, 1943 must have been bleak. And yet, shrouded in that gray mist of uncertainty and fear, Aaron Copland found a way to feel hope. Copland remembered, somehow, that wonderful American spirit–the ability to see possibility instead of adversity, to remember that a community could overcome anything if they worked together. Copland saw–and he composed.

It was thus that Appalachian Spring was born. The work did not initially bear that title–a detail which hardly detracts from the spirit of the work which was in its infancy. Indeed, its original name–’A ballet for Martha’ (Graham, that wonderful pioneer of American dance, for whom the work was written)–contains a simple but wonderful sentiment: in friendship and mutual admiration was born a gift, given from one artist to another. But the real gift was to be that of Copland and Graham to America: the personification, through sound and dance, of the indomitable American Spirit.

The work is one of love–that is to say, it was born of love, but it is also very much about love. The action, we are told, concerns the matter of a wedding party of a group of pioneers. Set in the early 1800s in the beautiful hills of Pennsylvania, we are first introduced to our key players: A bride (to be) and her groom; townspeople–friends and family to wish them well; an older neighbor who may be a bit world weary (and perhaps a kinder, gentler cousin to Don Alfonso!); and a revivalist preacher and his flock. But this is not a linear narrative! Each character or group has his or her say and action, naturally; but we are not merely told what they do. No, no, no. We are shown: we are shown how they feel, what they think, their inner-most joys and fears. And then–ah, art! Then we are invited in! Now we must get up and dance, eat and drink–but there is a price! Yes, there is always a price, isn’t there? Our bill arrives, and it is steep, but we can pay: We must laugh and cry, shout and whisper, proclaim boldly and pray silently.

It seems that Copland, despite working in the past by virtue of his subject matter, was really looking to the future. That, perhaps, makes the work and its message all the more remarkable. For how could a man living in one of the worst eras of human history possibly have seen this redemption? How could one imagine a world in which each day ends in some sort of bliss and peace? He does not thrust it upon us, however: he allows us free will, invites us to join, suggests that we try hope and not fear.

How does this marvelous work end, then? Surely such a powerful work must end with a triumphant fanfare, a rousing dance, a flurry of orchestral fireworks? No. Copland will not allow such reckless indulgence. How ironic that he should have given the sharpest pull to the heartstrings of his listeners in the final variation of ‘Simple Gifts’! Simple! No, his final gift is a prayer. It is not loud like the revivalists; it does not come with fire and brimstone or the Fear of any horseman, nor the communal ‘A-men!’ so common to the end of a jubilant celebration of mystery. This is a personal prayer: it comes from the heart, careful yet spontaneous, simple and sincere. And from a work which is now and again shrouded in a fine mist or, for a moment or two, in heavy fog–from that Sirius tone we are ushered gently into a meadow of possibility, set on a path to a brighter future. ‘It really is marvelous how the clouds seem to lift on that last page!’ wrote Leonard Bernstein to his friend and colleague some years after the premiere of the work. Bernstein, per usual, could not have been more accurate: The clouds lift, the sun shines, and all is right with the world. It is we who are not right, most of the time, due to greed or laziness, anger or petty jealousy, for favoring zeal over sincerity or comfort over quality. But, Copland’s music reminds us, there is always hope: there is always another chance, a tomorrow, a future. The world is there for us. We will stumble and may even fall–but winter will always lead into spring.

It was a Ballet for Martha–but now it is a work for us all.

Beethoven for Boston: A Search for meaning amid chaos.

Beethoven. This is a name which almost everybody knows. It has been 186 years since his death and his power and majesty have not diminished at all. Indeed, he has become a legend, his life the sort of truth which is endlessly fascinating and needs no embellishment.

To say the name conveys a certain power and awe, even to those who are uninitiated to the ways of classical music tradition. His music has been heard everywhere, for virtually every purpose: in Mass and mass media; in clubs and concert halls; for memorials and in movies. He has been idolized by people from Schumann to Schroeder. Yes, he is truly a Universal composer–and his greatness needs little explanation.

Beethoven can be admired for many things: his incredible compositional output wrought change–sometimes violently–within the world of music. His brilliance as a pianist established a new type of virtuosity, one which has been equaled but never surpassed. His incredible determination in the face of devastating adversity serves as an inspiration for us all, for he truly was a survivor of circumstance. But none of that truly explains why this man and his music have had such an impact on so many people. Yes, the answer is simple: He had a magnificent soul.

It is this soul which gives meaning to each and every note he left for us. It is this soul that transcends time, age, race, religion, language and circumstance. It is this soul which stands equal to any which has lived. This is a man, after all, who suffered–truly suffered. He had an abusive father. His teachers tended to dislike him (and predict failure or, worse, mediocrity!) His love life was always a mess–and he would never marry, nor have a chance to be a father, something he desperately wanted to be. He watched his idol fall from grace and become one of the worst tyrants in history, shattering his idealistic view of the world. And of course, he suffered a nearly debilitating–not to mention humiliating–’failure’ in his physical handicap, one which left him in effective isolation. Beethoven, the Great Soul, had every reason to hate the world, to curse God, to turn from his fellow man–to quit! If he had, we would still have a magnificent body of work: 6 symphonies, 4 piano concerti, a violin concerto, not to mention a magnificent Opera and an incredible series of sonatas and chamber music. But no, no! Beethoven did not give up; he did not give in to hate, inward or outward. Beethoven overcame; he committed to creating. He let Love and forgiveness win.

When I saw the news about the marathon bombing, I was stunned. It has been more than a decade since 9/11, but each time something like this happens it is still a shock. In less than a year we have seen a shooting in a movie theater, a major hurricane and an unimaginably horrific massacre of innocent children and teachers. We have watched as friends across the globe suffer from natural disasters and other tragedies. We laughed a bit as we got through the ‘Mayan Apocalypse’ unscathed, but largely returned to our (still) decidedly first-world problems. Yes, the horrors of war and terrorism still shock us–and they should! We have been incredibly lucky as a nation: we have not suffered military invasions on our soil in 200 years and have largely been able to live in peace and prosperity. Yes, we have just exited a century in which we saw war re-defined, multiple eras of systematic genocide and the establishment of the nuclear age. And yet we are still shocked–or, we are still able to be shocked.

So as I watched the news, feeling stunned, I knew what I had to do: I had to help. I didn’t immediately know how–to borrow a phrase from the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ (of all places!), ‘What can men do against such reckless hate?’ The answer was apparent from the first moment: Beethoven. Or, more specifically, The Magnificent Soul.

The Ninth has a special place in the world. It is a journey; it is not programmatic, per se, but it has a very clear (if complex) meaning. It is a life: it begins with a struggle, inner torment, self doubt, anger, desire, frustration, delayed gratification and an unstoppable momentum. Then it explodes! It becomes a wild dance, a torrential display of emotion, an open defiance, an almost manic experience of emotions (oh, those octaves in the timpani!). Then it returns to the inner voice: nostalgia takes over, but cautiously and, at least in this authors humble opinion, slightly cynically (though perhaps more a cynicism of the cynics–the miserabe who gently refuses a call to drink.) And now what is left? Is reflection and nostalgia not reserved for death? But no! No, it is not time to die! A furious dance leads to a dialogue–inward or outward? To whom is he speaking? Are we allowed to join in? May we feel joy? Yes, we must reject what has come before–but oh, not these tones, let us find joy, embrace it! And now we literally have voices–voices lifted up in praise…praise for the Eternal, for the possibility of a virtuous mankind, yes, but in praise of joy! Joy, unabashed and uninhibited, pure and gentle, omnipotent and eternal–joy for every creature who dares to love, dares to have faith, dares to embrace his fellow man! Joy against all odds.

The Ninth was the only choice–that was obvious. For we, too, shall feel joy, despite the overwhelming odds. We shall mourn, we shall grieve, we shall have our faith (whatever that faith may be) shaken, we shall cry out in anguish…but this, too, shall pass and there shall be joy. Joy is victory. Joy is living with love. Joy is to be shared.

And so I decided to offer my own humble gifts in service of this pursuit of joy. It is a long road and often comes with many bumps and forks. But Beethoven knows the way; he listens, he frowns, he smiles, he thinks, and then…he reveals.

I have decided to include two Americans as company for the Master: Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. Though at first glance it may seem an odd pairing, in this case it is quite happy company. Barbers Adagio is offered In memoriam to those who lost their lives. Yes, this is the time for tears, silent or otherwise. Barbers music is somber yet comforting; to me, it says ‘Yes, there is a time to grieve, and here it is: but do not despair, for your love is more powerful than sorrow and will do more good than your tears.’ It is music to cleanse.

And then we have Mr. Copland. Ah, Appalachian Spring! What a work! So optimistic, so sunny, so quirky–so American. It is, perhaps, the quintessential American work. I shall elaborate on the particular virtues of this work in a later post, but the themes bear mentioning. It is a work about marriage, family, life’s varied experiences, community, love and hope. Yes, I could not imagine a work better suited to the purpose of this concert: to build community, to reaffirm faith, to encourage hope.

It is my great pleasure to invite you to join me at this concert and on this journey. Let this be an experience of joy–and as Schiller (and Beethoven!) remind us, joy is meant to be shared.