Which conductor should you fight?

A brilliant little list/essay was recently published, and I heartily recommend reading it. The subject? ‘Which composer should you fight?‘ I surely prefer violins to violence, but the topic is nevertheless intriguing. In the spirit of taking things a step further, I propose the following list: Which conductor should you fight? This is limited to historical (read: dead) conductors for…very obvious reasons.

Mendelssohn: A gentleman masquerading as an artist, despite the high quality of his genius, Mendelssohn would steer you away from a fight, then invite you to tea. No fighting.

von Bulow: Sure, you could take him, and it’d be a good, spirited fight. Unfortunately once it is over he would insist that you fight again.

Richard Strauss: He’d fight you, and would probably overwhelm you with futuristic moves. Your only chance at a victory is to make sure the fight drags on long enough for him to start thinking about the post-battle card game.

Arturo Toscanini:….you’re kidding, right?

Wilhelm Furtwangler: Oh God, the fists just don’t stop…

Leopold Stokowski: If those magical hands don’t get you, that magnificent hair will.

Fritz Reiner: His movements will be so small, you’ll never see them coming. Best to stay clear.

Bruno Walter: He’d put you down with just a few well placed punches…then gaze upon you with a heartbreaking expression of disappointment.

Karl Bohm: A tricky fight. He’ll lull you into a false sense of security, then somehow get you to match his very deliberate style of fighting.

Otto Klemperer: Run. Run fast, run far.

Sergiu Celibidache: Fight? Why would you want to fight? Just close your eyes and breathe…very slowly…that’s it…just breathe…

Sir George Solti: Pound for pound you will fight well, but his battle cry will finish you off.

von Karajan: Fight? Who gave you permission to fight?

Leonard Bernstein: You’ll lose, but he’ll make you feel like the best loser in the world.

Carlos Kleiber: Why would you fight him when you could not fight him instead?

Amid more talk of diversity, action is still curiously absent.

A recent article in the Wall St. Journal reported on the awarding of a $400,000.00 grant from the Mellon Foundation to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Normally this would be cause for celebration: 6 figure grants for performing arts organizations are significant and not easy to win. Orpheus, besides being a top-flight ensemble, seems almost like a bit of a Cinderella story, especially today: formed in the 1970’s by a group of musicians who worked together from the start, building a sustainable organization and driven by their mission, they’ve become world renowned and an important institution in New York City. Yes, a $400,000.00 grant is nothing to sneeze at. The reason for this grant, however, may be cause for cautious optimism at best–and active worry at worst. A significant reason for the awarding of this grant is to hire more minorities–especially, at least ostensibly, latino and black musicians. The article quotes the League of American Orchestras figure which estimates that a mere 5% of orchestral musicians in the United States are of hispanic or black descent. A grant designed to address this problem seems, at first glance, to be a boon to those it may help. After all, bringing attention to the problem is the first step in rectifying it; taking steps to fix it is a logical second step. Unfortunately this sort of thing throws into sharp relief the problems behind the problem–many of which are not addressed at all. Perhaps the first issue is the lack of classical music in the ‘black’ and ‘latino’ communities. It was more than a century ago that one of the musical giants of the Romantic, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, visited the United States. During the four years he lived and worked here he taught, traveled and composed, among other things, his 9th Symphony, the ‘New World,’ which is regarded as one of his finest works (and certainly one of his most popular.) Dvorak also became familiar with the music of Native Americans and freed slaves–the so-called Negro Spirituals. His enthusiasm for this music was genuine, and he advised the American musical community to take advantage of this bounty and incorporate it into the American musical language. No less a person than Leonard Bernstein, arguably the most accomplished and admired classical musician that the United States has ever produced, also argued this point with great fervor, going so far to say in his senior thesis at Harvard, that “(To sum up, then:) American music owes one of its greatest debts to the Negroes, not only for the popularly acknowledged gift of jazz, but for the impetus which jazz has given to America’s art music. This incentive has come in two ways—melodically and rhythmically—with further support from tone color and contrapuntal feeling. Both the scale patterns and the rhythm patterns, as first manifested in jazz itself, were used freely in symphonic composition by men like Gershwin. With more advanced composers or with composers in a more advanced state [i.e., Sessions and Copland after 1929], this initial use—especially of the rhythms—has grown into a new style, which might be called the first tangible indigenous style that can be identified in American music.”  While the particular merits of each argument may be debated in social and scholarly circles, the positions of both men are clear. Yet more than a century after Dvorak’s proclamation and three quarters of a century after Bernstein penned his thesis, the idea of a National Musical language influenced by indigenous and minority cultural experience largely remains an historical footnote. Classical music, unfortunately, remains a prisoner of stereotypes: that it is ivory tower music, elitist, snobby, inaccessible, and perhaps most unfortunately, that it is exclusively white. Blame is ample on both ‘sides’ of the problem: orchestras tend to cater to ‘traditional’ audiences, in traditional (and ‘safe’) venues, waiting for the willing to come to them. Non-traditional communities are ignored, but often don’t take initiative: disadvantaged youth, particularly those ‘of color,’ are not encouraged to listen to Beethoven and Brahms, not introduced to the instruments of the orchestra, and, simply, rarely, if ever, told that they could be a violinist (or pianist, or oboist, or composer) if they wished. It is a poor message to send, and perhaps the cornerstone of the issue. It is interesting to note the presence of high-budget orchestras in cities which have large black and hispanic communities. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, has a budget of nearly $100m, a black population of 9.6% and an hispanic population of 48.5%. Boston, whose famed Symphony comes in 2nd with a budget of $89m, includes populations which are 24% black and 17% hispanic. Orchestras in such cities with large minority populations as Baltimore (no. 15) St. Louis (no. 16) and Detroit (no. 17) are outside of the top 10 in budget size but, with budgets over $20m a season, still have plenty of resources. Orchestra administrators across the country often cite a desire to be more ‘representative (on stage) of the communities in which we play’; but when orchestras in these major cities include minority members whose numbers account for just 5% of membership, one may wonder how great that desire truly is. A second problem is that of the attempts at ‘solutions’ that have cropped up here and there in recent years. From the Sphinx competition to orchestral fellowship programs designed exclusively for ‘musicians of color’ to ensembles comprised of minority musicians, there have been some well recognized ‘innovations’ over the last decade or two. But oh, what problems they come with! A competition designed exclusively for a single demographic immediately attaches a qualification to its competitors–not to mention its winner. Thus the career of a ‘brilliant young violinist’ becomes the career of a ‘talented young black/latina’ violinist.’ Descriptive adjectives and personal pride in ones heritage aside, that sort of qualification can do as much harm as good, if not more. Instead of anticipation building ahead of a performance because the soloist is known for, say, an especially luxurious legato tone or a special way with Brahms, he or she becomes known simply as ‘the winner of this particular competition.’ In short, a musician–a complex human being!–becomes an other, possibly even a curiosity. Fellowships for minority musicians are helpful, but I wonder how they can help but being seen as a sort of affirmative action program. Music is hard enough: getting just the right colors in Debussy, the depth and subtlety of emotion in Brahms and the right articulation and tempi in Bach, for example, are challenges that require the most intense attention to detail. To be scrutinized for those details is difficult enough, particularly in an audition, but to have additional scrutiny because one is seen as the ‘other’ fellow–well, that is another thing entirely. And lastly–the idea of an ‘all ethnic’ ensemble is perhaps the ultimate double edged sword. It certainly runs the risk of reinforcing or affirming the convictions of those who may think that ‘people of color’ have little to no place in a professional symphony orchestra–that it is not ‘their’ music. Orchestras such as the ‘Soulful Symphony,’ performing gospel versions of Handel, could be seen as apologizing for (or even misunderstanding) classical music. Perhaps the best thing to take away from this is that music is designed to break down barriers, not to reinforce them. Beethoven has as much to say to a poor kid in the Bronx as it does to the Wall St. exec or PhD. The kid in the Bronx needs to know that he’s welcome: welcome at the children’s concert, welcome on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, welcome to take up the violin or the trumpet, welcome to love Beethoven and Brahms–and, perhaps some day, welcome to study at Juilliard and take his place in (or in front of) the orchestra, too. And for all the talk of hispanic and black, heritage and identity, that kid also needs to know this: when the music begins, that’s all that matters. What you are is irrelevant; who you are is important. Yes, there have been more outreach programs recently. Certainly the philosophy of ‘El Sistema’ has taken the country by storm, and programs are springing up all over the country. And of course the purpose served by organizations like Sphinx is noble and useful! But there is more to do–much more. And it really isn’t that complicated. So to Orpheus or any other organization out there that is ‘grappling’ with diversity, here is my advice: forget about diversity. Embrace inclusiveness. Do a runout concert in a rough neighborhood. Send your musicians to give free lessons in a failing middle school or high school. Preach the Word According to Beethoven, and let them know that his music is for them, too. And above all, don’t look at someone dark-skinned as an other, a minority, someone different: look at them as a friend, a colleague, a musician, a member of Schiller’s universal brotherhood. Look, listen, and give them a chance. That is worth far more than $400,000.00, and it’ll cost you far less.

Establishing a canon for American music in the classroom and concert hall.

America has no culture. How many times has this been uttered by people around the world? America has plenty of entertainment: from vaudeville, ragtime and jazz to Broadway, baseball and reality television, we have always been able to pass the time, to manufacture celebrities and fill programming in every form of media. But culture? Surely not! When Americans crave culture, they import it–and why not? Americans love the exotic, and the world loves to come to America. Why should we need our own culture?

This is a tongue in cheek assessment, to be sure, but there are those who may already find themselves nodding in agreement. American culture often seems quite balanced: on one hand, we have an incredible sense of hubris, while on the other we have a massive inferiority complex. It is in this balance that so many of our cultural gems are lost. And when they are lost, or even overlooked, how may we begin to get them back?

Perhaps nowhere is this problem more evident than in concert music. Classical music is a European art form, goes the argument. It is not American; the best American composers merely borrowed from European models, and the finest orchestras tend to import their conductors and soloists (and a good portion of their musicians.) These facts are accurate, sad to say; far too many orchestras overlook top American talent in favor of more ‘exotic’ foreigners. And there is nothing wrong with foreigners! From Toscanini and Mahler to Muti and Masur, American music owes a deep debt of gratitude to men and women from all over the world who have come to America to contribute to our cultural life. But what of American talent? After all, we boast some of the best conservatories and universities in the world; why are we so eager to overlook the emergence of a talented young American musician as some sort of novelty or aberration–a second choice, at best?

Most alarming is the manifestation of the inferiority complex when it comes to American music. Our symphonic canon is, to put it mildly, underrated. In both the classroom and the concert hall, there are few perennial favorites, little patriotism aroused by, say, the performance of a Piston Symphony or the announcement of a new symphony by a Rouse or Corigliano. American music is certainly no pale imitation of European mastery! It is vivid, complex, descriptive, personable and uniquely American. 

A German knows what Beethoven means for national pride. The French have a certain way with Debussy and Bizet. The English adore Vaughan Williams and Elgar. And when it comes to the Russians and their national composers…well…to use the term devotion is hardly a hyperbole. But what of Americans? What does it mean to say Bernstein, Copland or Barber? How about Piston, Persichetti, Mennin? The post-war and cold war eras saw an arms race and space race with Russia, and every opportunity was taken to gloat and celebrate when America bested their Soviet counterparts in some area of achievement. And yet what have we been left with? The Soviets got the best years of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. We got the best of Copland, Bernstein, Barber, and many others. And yet how many times will we see those Russian masters on a program to be performed by American orchestras–while our American masters are neglected by the same ensembles? 

It is not merely a lack of performances; it is a lack of outrage at the lack of performances, a lack of awareness and an abundance of apathy. Aside from Appalachian Spring and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, there seem to be few real ‘hits’ at the box office. Why is that? 

The roots of this issue lie in two places, as far as I can tell. One is the classroom. American music is conspicuously absent from classrooms across the country. The continued compartmentalization of education is surely a factor in this matter. Heaven forbid that, while studying world war 2, we should have any mention of Copland’s Ballet for Martha or that upon examining the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy we should be introduced to Bernstein’s Kaddish. How wonderful would it be for every elementary school student to know the themes (or at least the ‘Variations on a Shaker theme’) of Copland’s ballet! 

The second, of course, is the orchestra itself. Few appearances are made on orchestral programs, and when they are they often come with extreme fanfare or on concerts dedicated entirely to American music. Triumph, of course, would be to include with the programming of American music an omission of note; to simply include this music as part of the canon would be a more effective strategy in the long run, as introducing a new food to a child without gimmicks or debate. Give the audience a chance to love this music–their music. It is not merely ownership, but a matter of identity: this music is about them, their communities and their experiences! Why should it not be a part of their life?

I often wonder when music became ‘new music.’ All music was once new music, after all: Beethoven’s Eroica shocked the Viennese, Bruckner’s symphonies perplexed audiences and Prokofiev disconcerted even his mentors. We get over it; we move on, and, most importantly, we come to accept and love it. Why has the work of Americans been so often relegated to ‘novelty’? Much of it is (or once was) an experiment; but experiments prove a thesis, and then become a standard, then ubiquitous. And is that very ubiquitousness not a definition of success? 

Finally, there are the musicians themselves. We consistently walk a fine line between a tortured quest for individuality and a desperate search for association; to belong, to have some classification. The latter seems to be a recent phenomenon, at least as far as the specialty musician, as opposed to generations past in which being a consummate musician was the ultimate honor. But today we have early music specialists and Baroque coloraturas, period instrument orchestras and avant garde ensembles. For some, crossing the line is seen as an ideological shift! And thus we have the new music specialist. And what shall we say of this musician? Should ‘new music’ be the exclusive domain and property of this specialist? Shall this musician shun the works of any composer born before the heyday of Stockhausen and consider any fellow musician who has not studied in a special program the mysterious, exclusive world of ‘new music’? 

To our great masters, of course, this would likely seem quite shocking. The greatest musical communities in history thrived on a desire to learn and live with as much music as possible. And for great performers, it was essential to have relationships with composers. When did the line between composer and performer become so salient and so important? It is an important question, concerning both interpersonal relationships and individuals. For there are many (perhaps too many) performers who look with a wary eye upon living composers, and many (again, perhaps too many!) composers who consider themselves only composers and not practicing musicians. Neither attitude is healthy. Music will be played by people; thus, relationships are vital. And those must be encouraged! 

It is a feature of nearly every artists’ biography I’ve ever read in a concert program, be it a famous soloist or conductor, or a young virtuoso. Passionately devoted to new music! proclaims a section of the bio. A champion of living composers. New music–may I please, please, please simply call it music?–needs champions; it needs devotion, patience, and faith. A composer needs to be believed in, understood, afforded genuine passion. Works need to be commissioned and performed, then performed again, and again, and again. Histories and styles need to be developed, relationships between composers and performers or ensembles formed and maintained, and a lexicon unique to that composer established as a language with which to be familiar and to which fluency is aspired. America can be described in music; it has been, and will continue to be. Composers will speak; it is time for audiences to really have a chance to listen.

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.