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?


Why do we place…

Why do we place responsibility in the hands of politicians? Why do we expect that they can (and will) effect change in any positive way? When did the artist–the musician, writer, philosopher, teacher–lose power? When will the citizenry of humanity realize that man does not need to be governed, but rather inspired?

Program music: Subject and meaning

Program music is a tricky thing to experience. Whether conducting it, performing it, listening to it or even composing it, it is difficult to avoid falling into a sort of extra-musical purgatory from which emergence is often difficult.

This kind of music has two chief concerns. The first is its genesis: it was a product of the Romantic, pioneered by Liszt and a cornerstone of the ‘Music of the Future.’ The goal of the romantics was hyper-emotional expression, with an emphasis on individuality. Sometimes this meant musical individuality, but it often meant that of the composer—and his ego. Thus it became entirely possible for the subject of program music, whether heroic or tragic, to be a representation of the composer himself rather than a musical exploration of an extra-musical subject such as literature, art or history.

The second concern was the place of this kind of music within the scope of musical form. Program music sat comfortably (perhaps uncomfortably!) at the intersection of absolute music—pure, some would say—and storytelling. The former was, in orchestral terms, expressed most powerfully by the symphony, which was fast becoming a cornerstone of concert and compositional culture as Beethoven’s life drew to a close and the first wave of romantics, including Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Wagner, began to mature. As the symphony orchestra became independent and concert culture evolved, the symphony took on new meanings—and new dimensions. Its evolution into a vehicle for program music was an intriguing form of intellectual and musical currency, albeit only one side of a very large coin.

The latter became increasingly complex. Music had always been used as a storytelling device, and it crossed boundaries very easily. Stories were told around campfires with singing and dancing; this had always been true. Folk-songs were story-telling devices almost as a rule. Opera had found a way to marry music, drama and literature in an entirely new way and was two centuries old by the time the Romantic era began. And even the Catholic Church, with their strict rules about…well, everything…had room for musical storytelling: forms such as the Miserere and Stabat Mater were very popular among composers.

Program music was not always about a story, of course. It sometimes dealt with ideas and philosophies, specific emotions and experiences. A linear narrative was not necessary; but imagery abounded, aided by the unbridled passions of the romantic composer and the ever-expanding orchestra and art of orchestration.

So with program music, where does the musician or listener begin? For that matter, where does a composer begin? The latter is an intriguing question with which to begin. First is the selection of the subject. It is an idea? Is it an existing work, such as a painting or character from a novel? Is the goal to recreate faithfully the inspiration for the music, or to merely suggest it through imagery? Is it an interpretation of that work or a reimagining of it? And then what should the audience listen for? Which is more powerful—symbolism or literal meaning?

Some composers’ intentions seemed clearer than others. The opening of Strauss’ Don Juan is brimming with bravado and virility; it is not only clear that Strauss is introducing us to the legendary lover but that the composer has definite ideas as to what kind of lover he is. We may hear clearly that this man, Don Juan, loves love, loves women, and is a master of seduction. We understand immediately that this is not the scoundrel of Mozart’s opera but the complex protagonist from the original story—with, perhaps, a slightly Straussian influence.

Other times we are entirely unclear as to where we are in a story—or what that story is! In the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, we are informed by the title ‘The Kalendar Prince’ of the subject for the movement. The story involves a young Prince and his misadventures following the escape of a coup-d’état. Rimsky-Korsakov spins a magnificent web of sound, with brilliant orchestration and virtuosic exclamations from every section of the orchestra. It is marvelously exciting music and wonderfully written. But alas—there seems to be no hint of the Prince himself, or anything resembling a narrative of any kind! To try and find one or interpret the program literally is utterly confounding.  

This is where the matter of music interpretation comes into play, along with a host of questions. How intimately acquainted with the original subject matter should the musician be? Is it part of a larger tradition? Such is the case with Don Juan, which Mozart set to great effect, and Strauss revered Mozart; so is it fair to ask whether Strauss was influenced not only by Molina and Byron but by Mozart as well? What of the context of a movement or motif in a larger work? With Scheherazade it is clear that the second movement is not a literal musical telling of the Kalendar story; perhaps the movement is about Scheherazade’s telling of the story rather than the story itself? But then, though the work evokes the mysticism of the Orient, it is at its heart Russian—so, then, should it sound ‘authentically’ Oriental or authentically Russian? Ah, the questions!

There is yet another matter that arises from the performance of programmatic music, and that is music which has been taken from a dramatic work. The orchestral repertoire is full of overtures and suites taken from ballet, opera and stage plays.

How does the meaning of the music change by being transported from the stage to the concert hall? Clearly the audience is now tasked with shifting their attention from singers or dancers to the orchestra. And how should the orchestra respond? After all, they are no longer accompanying theater but are now the main attraction. Certain considerations made necessary due to the technical concerns of accompanying may, in theory, no longer apply. Suddenly a written p, necessary so as not to drown out a singer, may be played mp or mf. Shall the dynamic be altered or will it remain p with a different quality and color? Similarly, a tempo may be adjusted: Allegro with the quarter at precisely 126 may be perfect for a performance with dancers, but with an orchestra on its own it may change. Would going slightly faster (assuming it sounded good!) change the music drastically or give a better or worse effect? Would new meanings reveal themselves? Ah, there is the magic!

In the end, we may be left with one important question: Does program music tell the story of the story—or the story itself? 

The real death in classical music.

There has recently been much discussion regarding ‘the death of classical music.’ Such conversations are nothing new, of course; classical music has been dying for some time and yet always manages to outlive the very authors of its obituary. Yet the whispers persist, too often rising to a dull roar and, now and then, erupting as a full-throated shout from the rooftops.

It is most unfortunate, because classical music is actually doing quite well. In spite of the funeral march we have witnessed many exciting developments in the field in recent years: record ticket sales at some orchestras, the introductions of new outreach programs, the establishment of modern music ensembles and festivals, the proliferation of orchestras and opera houses in new markets across the world, exciting young soloists bursting onto the scene and the release of notable and important new recordings. And the music–oh, the music! Mozart and Beethoven have aged extremely well; their music is still as fresh and vibrant as it was in the Enlightenment and Napoleonic Europe. Mahler’s prophecies about the future of his music have come to pass and he has become a repertoire mainstay. The eternally autumnal glow of Brahms’ oeuvre continues to find new ways to warm us and his romantic-era sparring partner, Wagner, has continued its Kantian hold over our collective psyches. Yes, the music is just fine, thank you very much.

But, back to the issue of death. Yes, to read recent articles would leave the music lover scratching his or her head in puzzlement. While there are problems–real problems which need to be solved–the music, that which is most important, is absolutely fine. So why do we keep reading such grim reports?

The fact is that there has been a death in the classical world, a death which we should all mourn. Unfortunately it has gone unreported, its corpse still animated and somewhat coherent. It is a death in two parts, with one all but completely gone and the other still in the throes of Denial. 

This is the death of musical criticism.

The first death is the most lamentable. Full time positions for critics and journalists have been eliminated at major publications across the United States, leaving many audiences without a voice. This may lead to a sigh of relief for musicians and arts administrators in some corners; but the fact is that a critic (a good critic) is an essential voice in a musical community. That these positions have begun to disappear is cause for real alarm and dismay, and we may only hope that they may experience a resurrection in the future.

The second death, however, is regrettable for different reasons. This death is not yet complete, but the animated remains are too often kept alive only by large amounts of hubris. This death, that which still resides in Denial, is the death of the Critic (or Journalist) as Artist.

Musical commentary seems largely to have followed the trend of journalism in general. Fact is replaced by conjecture; insight by opinion; a desire for truth by a desire to be first, loudest or most sensational. This is not to say that it has always been different historically. On the contrary: musical criticism in the 19th and early 20th century was often salacious and motivated by politics, leading to near destruction of some of the greatest musicians in history. Yet there were notable bright spots: this was an art practiced by Schumann, Shaw and Twain, after all! And the one thing those men had in common: they always wrote about the music.

Today, sadly, we seem to read more about the politics and finances of institutions; the personal lives, rather than the musical insights, of performers; and, worst of all, comparisons of performances to other performances (or even recordings.) This last matter is most troubling. To compare one orchestra to the other, especially in the performance of a particular work, is not especially helpful. To compare one performance to an historical performance is often even less productive. Certainly the commentary may be interesting or entertaining, but the only comparison which truly matters is that of a performance to the score. The intentions of the composer are the most important things to consider. What a great conductor or orchestra did in the past; what traditions have developed over time; these are beside the point. To offer any meaningful commentary, one must begin with the score.

Unfortunately it is rarely thus. Aside from the often mediocre quality of the writing in general, especially in non-traditional formats, reviews seem to spend a very little time actually writing about the music. And why should this be so? The musicians of an orchestra have a responsibility to the music: to inspire those who hear it. Likewise, the journalist has an obligation: he must find a way to inspire his readers to love this music, to become curious, to explore, learn and grow. Far too many seem to buy into the most ridiculous aspect of the ‘brand’ of classical music: gleeful snobbery. 

There are excellent journalists writing today, absolutely; but we need many, many more. If the critics are to be the proverbial watchers, then on whom may we rely in turn to watch them? In an age of ubiquitous musical virtuosity, it is time for a few more Virtuosi of the Pen.

The (minor) miracle of a percussion section.

I’m often asked if there are different personalities among musicians who play different instruments. It is an extremely difficult question to answer; after all, it is hard to stop laughing when one is laughing that hard! To explain this to someone who has spent little to no time around musicians, it may seem a bit bewildering. After all, a musician is a musician (is a musician), isn’t he? But naturally, we musicians know differently! Anyone who has witnessed an exchange between an oboist bemoaning her reed, only to be interrupted by a violinist complaining about bowings (or seating)…well, assuming they’re standing far enough away to avoid being caught up in the fray, answers should reveal themselves quite easily.

Yes, I’ve written it before: we musicians are a strange lot, with our own personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, insecurities and social hierarchy. Most can be explained quite simply: violinists are confident (except for the 2nd violinists, who are…well…let’s not go there.) Violists are the confused middle children of the orchestra. Double bass players are…there. Oboists are charmingly neurotic. Bassoonists are slightly less charming. Trumpet players are also confident–but a little more, ahem, expressive about it. So on and so forth. But percussionists…well, percussionists end up in their own special category. They are sort of the third base coaches of the orchestra world: nobody really notices them unless they screw up. 

Percussion is a special case within the musical community. They are certainly easy targets: many of their instruments appear easy to play, even easy to master. After all, a number of their instruments (triangle, tambourine) are favorite playthings of the pre-kindergarten set, often employed as methods of torture and tests of patience for parents of young children and once-eager early childhood education students. And the timbre of the instruments may be recreated on any number of common household items, with kitchenware being especially popular. 

As always, it is not that simple. Percussion, after all, may allow an exceptionally well educated, mature, well-adjusted adult to utter the following phrase without irony: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” Yes. read that again: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” (Disclaimer: The author of this article has never personally uttered this phrase, though he admits that his triangle playing, while having its moments, is generally quite mediocre.) These instruments are hard. The great composers who wrote for them were unafraid to present a challenge. To be a percussionist requires much more than the ability to hit a drum or find the right keys on the xylophone! In fact, the only thing that should be struck by a percussionist is the word hit from his vocabulary. The percussionist must draw out the sound from the timpani; elicit crisp yet smooth notes from the snare; carefully extract myriad colors (at the right moment and in exactly the right manner) from the cymbals; the list goes on and on. The decisions, often made quickly and on the spur of the moment during rehearsal, are dizzying: which mallets to use? Which size and weight should the cymbals be? What size triangle–which beaters, too, and to hold or mount? Calf-heads or goatskin? Dresden or Berlin? Chain or pedal? Plastic heads or brass? Wood shell or copper?!

Perhaps most surprising of all is the makeup of a section and how well it can function together. Dysfunction would likely be assumed by most of their orchestral colleagues, of course, owing to the fact that the term ‘peanut gallery’ has often been applied to the usually colorful bunch of characters standing (or sitting around) at the back of the orchestra. When one thinks about it, the percussion section is unique: unlike other sections, they rarely, if ever, play together. 

It is not so in other sections. Section wind players learn to shade the principal–and other instruments within the section as a whole– in matters of tone and phrasing. The horns and brass, almost as a rule, develop a single, unified sound and color, with a particular blend being ideal. And the strings! Ah, learning to bow and even play vibrato with as much uniformity as possible–it is their chief concern most of the time, leading to incredible camaraderie (or, on occasion, rivalry.)

Composers rarely write for percussion with any consistency. There is often timpani, of course; that is a given, going back to the early Baroque. But the timpanist plays alone, with few exceptions. There does exist something of a basic unit, early on: the ‘Turkish’ section of triangle, cymbal and bass drum, though it may be argued that in many cases (such as Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraligo and Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens and 9th Symphony) the intention of the composer was to achieve an effect and not to require any particular sense of finesse (though, of course, musicality and finesse are essential when performing these works in the concert hall!) Beyond this, however, there is little in the repertoire to suggest any sort of attempt at consistency. Not only does this tend to vary from one work to another, but there is often a great range and variety within a single work. Percussion may be called for in one movement but not the next; in extreme (but hardly unusual) cases, an instrument may be called upon to play in just a few measures–even just a few notes–in the entire piece.

So it is incredible that the section, all playing sporadically and almost always playing different material (rhythmic, harmonic, timbrel) can achieve cohesion rather than chaos. And yet it happens: a camaraderie and personality develops within the section, jobs are assigned (the establishment of a principal cymbalist, auxiliary, bass drum, etc) and a sound and style emerge. From chaos emerges consistency: yet another miracle of music and the great institution of the orchestra.

The industrial nature of art.

I recently came across a posting which printed a letter written by Oscar Wilde to a fan who found curious the following line in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “All art is quite useless.”

True to his witty and sartorial nature, Wilde replied: 

My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,

Oscar Wilde

It is difficult to know if Wilde was being serious or, per usual, tongue in cheek with the flower analogy. However, if he was indeed being serious, he missed a wonderful chance to elucidate about art. A flower is absolutely useful: it provides a brilliant canvas upon a meadow which serves to attract all manner of life. It also provides pollen which sustains bees and butterflies who, in turn, pollinate other life, keeping nature in perfect working order. And a flower gives off seeds which allow future generations to grow and flourish! Finally, a flower may be unique to a certain environment or locale, ensuring that one may identify his surroundings. And so art is to us: it provides us a canvas upon which to express our experiences in life; it allows us to share ideas with others; it provides life for future generations, and a path for those who may lose their way; and, finally, it is both universal and unique to culture and country, allowing us to identify and empathize. Perhaps it is the so-called industry of mankind, which so often struggles to value art, which is most useless to nature. 

Music: The Universal Language and the miracle of Notation

“Music is the universal language!”

So begin countless speeches and essays. It is a popular sentiment, spoken and written by musicians, music lovers and community leaders the world over. It may be a rallying cry to save music education; it may be the opening salvo at a gala; it may be the first line of a dissertation or biography. Music is the universal language–the, not a. It is an absolute. 

Music is the universal language–even western art music, so often referred to as ‘classical music’ and increasingly maligned as elitist and out of touch. In fact, despite this accusation, one may say that it is especially western art music which is universal, as it seeks to express human emotion and idealism through sound. But it is the frequency and often casual nature with which the sentiment of universality is expressed which tends to detract from the power of that very message. Are we fully aware of just how awesome this force is–and how lucky we are to have such a system of codification?

Musical notation is often considered by non-musicians to be a mystic language.Even trained–and, dare I say it, professional–musicians some times take it for granted. Musical notation contains a vast amount of information. It has certainly evolved over the centuries, not least of all due to reasons of practical culture. To read one of the preludes and fugues of Bach’s encyclopedic ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ would seem to a lay-person to be devoid of direction, especially if it were being compared to a page of a symphony by Mahler; but this is where oral tradition would have taken precedent in the age of Bach, as he would expect the musician playing his work to understand the style and thus be able to make informed decisions almost instantly. Returning to our comparison with the latter is perhaps a bit unfair, speaking musicological, given not only the century and a half between the creation of Bach’s magnum opus and the symphonic career of Mahler, but the radical shifts in culture and practice, musical and general. Allowing ourselves this comparison, for the sake of argument, we are taken from a single musician playing in a style to a society of musicians playing his (Mahler’s) style, with the composer now willing to leave nothing to chance and therefore providing an encyclopedia of his own.

In each case, however, we have been left more than a simple guide to the music. We have been given a map, complete with topographical detail, landmark histories and even weather reports. We are given everything, even where information seems to be missing. A universal language indeed! We are reminded that the universe is not merely the physical expanse of space, but also time (past, present and future), dimension and the world of the metaphysical. 

How often do we stop to realize how lucky we are for this gift of notation? This has been a recent realization for me. In doing research for an upcoming concert, pouring through recordings and articles, I kept coming across videos of ‘reconstructions of the original (choreography.) Ah–reconstructions! How often must we reconstruct other art forms? We can often only guess at the choreography of a 19th century ballet, or what a completed painting of a great master lost long ago would look like, or what Shakespeare’s pronunciations would sound like–and then we must create a context for that. It makes for wonderful scholarship, of course, and a fine exercise in empathy and understanding–but it also leaves us with little more than conjecture and speculation, sophisticated though it is. 

How fortunate we are, then, to be able to know exactly what Bach meant? Or Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler–the list is endless. Scholarship (formal or informal) is essential, naturally, to become a well-rounded musician and to understand style. But when starting to rehearse a Beethoven symphony or Mozart opera, we do not have to guess; we do not need to start from scratch. The map exists, and we may spend our time interpreting–and understanding–rather than trying to remember through reconstruction.

This is not to say that the musician is reduced to an animated scholar. Imagination is crucial. Through a knowledge of style, history and the individual’s own virtuoso technical ability, music springs from the page and is brought to life. And what life! Each performance, when given the proper attention and enthusiasm from ensemble and audience alike, may become a premiere. What an opportunity for time-travel and empathy. For even in the 21st century we may find ourselves astounded by the invention of Bach; by the endless wonder of Mozart; by the raw power of Beethoven; by the epoch-making (and forward-looking) Mahler; and countless others.

Style could easily take up a series of articles and I cannot begin to delve into such a complex subject in such a modest essay, but I will allow one brief comment concerning musical responsibility.

A musician has two responsibilities: understand the style and honor the intent of the composer. Style is the realization of notation while intent is the interpretation and manifestation of empathy with the soul of the composer. Any good musician may master style but it is in the search for intent that we may become artists.

Notation allows us to communicate in spite of our human limitations. Yes, it truly is the universal language.

Composition: Inspiration, craftsmanship and identity.

I know the precise moment in which I became a composer.

It was the fourth in a string of events–hardly well paced–that set me on the path to this life in music; for while I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a musician, it took me some time to learn how to truly live music. The first three events led me to believe that I’d arrived, that I’d achieved something; but they were only sections of a prelude, elegant and naive phrases with clumsily written cadences.

The first came at the age of 14 or 15. It is not much of a story to tell, in all honesty. I was a violinist at the time, or at least I tried to be; I’d been playing for 7 years and had a modest repertoire, as well as a seat as principal second in my youth orchestra, so I allowed myself this delusion. And I was becoming quite a good timpanist; my talent for this particular instrument had emerged and, as my passion was somehow equaled by my work ethic, I was starting to prove my worth. And yet I somehow felt musically incomplete, as if part of me was not expressing itself with any satisfaction. So it was that I awoke one morning with a simple thought: I need to compose. So simple and seemingly innocent was this thought (which would give me little rest in the following days) that I did not realize the terrible danger it posed to my well-being. For to compose may lead, in some cases, to becoming a composer; and to be a composer means to live for music–and live through music.

And so I began to write. First, some clumsy attempts at a Requiem–a natural choice for a reasonably well-adjusted teenager. Then, after an argument with an older classmate who happened to be a trombonist, a terribly naive solo sonatina which was embarrassingly inoffensive in its simplicity. And then came the first hint of danger: the desire to compose a string quartet. I gave into this temptation without protest; and in a matter of a week or so, I had composed my first complete work.

By the time my last days of high school arrived, I found myself in a strange place: I was to study composition at a major conservatory with a renowned composer. I was quite terrified; besides being entirely self-taught in this discipline, writing what I had through a process of trial and error, I had no idea what it really meant to be a composer. I knew what it meant for Beethoven and Mahler, of course; but what did it mean for me? At the moment, it meant that I would no longer be a full-time performer, and having intended to pursue a career as an orchestral timpanist, this was no small change.

Then came the second event. I found myself seated by a composer of some reputation and accomplishment, a man who had lived an admirable life. I had in my possession a few of my works, including some preludes for piano and a movement of the symphony I was desperately trying to finish. I was 17, and felt compelled to finish it before that dreaded milestone of 18. I had little more than a month to go and had found myself needing to work harder on this trifle (which had begun as a serenade for 8 instruments and would end up as a 40 minute symphony for chamber orchestra) than I had planned. My world was filled with potential, but also uncertainty; this made me quite uncomfortable indeed. I’d come to this discussion, which was largely informal, hopeful that this great composer, a man who had worked with Ravel, would critique my work. My hopes were dashed unceremoniously when he informed his audience that it was a policy of his–and had been his entire career–not to critique or peruse the works of other composers. I hid my disappointment as best I could and stuffed most of my music hastily back into my bag. And then came the miracle. As he fielded questions and listened to others speak, he began stealing glances at my bag. One page, then another, and a smile played over his lips. Very discreetly and gently, he motioned to me to lean towards him. With a subtle, kind smile and a friendly but very serious look in his eyes, he said in a voice barely above a whisper “Keep writing.” He leaned back again, gave me a wink and a nod, and resumed his business of fielding questions. There I sat, stunned and encouraged, my doubts erased. I might become a composer yet.

Then came the third event, the moment at which I was certain I’d finally made it. In my first lesson with my professor at conservatory–the second semester, as he’d been on sabbatical in the first– I brought the four works I’d completed in the previous few months. I’d worked with particular obsession on two of them: a Symphony in One movement, and the first movement of a concerto for piano. Another seemed trivial by the work I’d completed since; it was merely a set of dances for piano, not very innovative at all. It was the fourth work, however, that I knew I needed to begin with: a string quartet. It was a strange work to me, very different from any of the others, living in a completely different sound world. I set it before him, and he took it to the piano. Sitting there, he paused, and then began to play. He played the entire first movement, an expansive adagio which lasted 12 minutes, and when he concluded, he sat silently. I waited…and waited…and waited. Terror had taken a new meaning now, and I was quite ready to slink out of the room. Finally he turned to me with a serious look. “This has a…certain lyrical beauty,” he said to me. “It is deeply felt…expressive. And I’m not sure yet what it means. Are you sure you’re only 18?” I was stunned–not to mention relieved that he had something good to say. When I recovered and was able to reply, leading to a wonderful conversation and my first true lesson as a composer, I realized what this moment meant: nobody had ever told me how they felt about my music. The work was performed a few months later, then withdrawn and reworked, with the revised version receiving its premiere a few months later under its new title: Symphony for Strings, Op. 2. The Op. 2 would lead to the fourth event.

The lead up was dramatic, at least to my mind. I was preparing for my first lesson with Dr. A, a renowned, celebrated and highly influential teacher whose former students were household names in the composition world. I was to study with him for three weeks at a festival, and I knew it would be intense: two lessons per week, plus master-classes, and I’d been told that while he was very kind and encouraging, he was also no-nonsense and extremely tough. The Symphony for Strings had been one of the works I’d submitted as an audition, and I was eager to bring it to him along with my most recent misadventure composition, a tone-poem for baritone and chamber orchestra which can only charitably be described as heavily influenced by certain late-romantic German composers. As I sat down with the good Doctor and handed him my scores, I recalled the horror I’d felt in similar situations over the previous few years; I came to the conclusion that they didn’t measure up to the anxiety I felt at this particular moment. The pedagogue spent a few minutes flipping through the scores, moving from expressionlessness to a visage of great thought, even consternation. Finally he came to the Op. 2, and smiled a bit. “Ah, yes, Joseph. I remember this!” I perked up. “Yes, Joseph–this work is why I accepted you. Very good, very good. Now, tell me, Joseph: who are you trying to imitate?” Time stopped. My heart pumped its last. My breath would not come. I hoped against all hope for the floor to open and simply swallow me, and it rewarded my faith with stubborn inaction. My career, I knew, had just ended. “Um…Dr. A…I…I never try to imitate anyone!” I stammered. “I try to write with my own voice, you know, and of course don’t try to…” He smiled. “Poppycock! Absolute bull. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear! Now tell me–who are you trying to imitate?” I was speechless. Was my acceptance, then, a cruel joke? Was he regretting his invitation? Did he not even think me worthy of mercy?! He sighed and stood up, clapping his hands together, and exclaimed “My dear boy, everyone tries to imitate the composers they admire, especially when they are young! You’re how old? 21?” “Twenty,” I managed to croak. “Twenty years old!” he cried. “You are a baby! You have a lot to learn yet–and you can, you will! It is good to imitate others–it is a way to learn, and for you to realize what it is about their music that moves you, that makes you who you are–because your love for their music is part of you, an important part! But to become a composer, you must learn how to find your notes and to move beyond imitation. This ‘Vagabond,’ a clever tone poem–but it is not you. It is well written–but it is not you! That is why you are here. I will teach you to stop imitating and to be you. Don’t worry–I know you’re a good boy. Now, let’s get to work.” The three weeks flew by, and I completed three short works in that time. When I returned to conservatory that fall, I presented them to my teacher, who responded with this: “Well, you accomplished in one summer what I wanted to do with you all of this year. Joseph…you sound like you.”

The words of Dr. A have stayed with me all these years (and it is hard to believe that this happened nearly a decade ago.) They will stay with me my entire life, I’m sure. That was the moment in which I realized what it meant to be a composer, not merely one who writes. But just as importantly, it taught me the value of personal heroes. Lists are arbitrary and offer little insight; a top 5 or top 10 can be interesting, to be sure, but are fraught with the peril of value judgments and subjectivity. But to have admiration for someone–not idle, but active inspiration–can serve to drive us forward. We aspire to match them–not in their achievement, but in their desires, curiosity and ideals. As I continue to work and grow as a composer (not to mention as a conductor,) I will focus on these men (and women), their ideals and contributions. And perhaps, from time to time, I shall write about it.

The need for brave artists.

Music and politics have always had an interesting relationship. Political leaders have shaped music history for hundreds of years, for better or worse. In the case of the former, we have the Emperor Franz Josef I, the Esterhazy family and King Ludwig II; in the case of the latter, we may look to Stalin and Hitler. And sometimes we see a more complex picture, as in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which both oppressed (dictating rules of form and harmony) and empowered (the masses of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.)

The artist has always toed the line, for various reasons, between being politically active and apolitical. Sometimes it is a game of diplomacy, such as the case of Mozart and the bishops of Salzburg; other times, it is a case of reckless abandon, as in the case of Wagner’s involvement with the revolution of 1848. But we have a rich legacy of artists whose compliance with or defiance of political powers resulted in the creation of magnificent works—works whose legacies have shaped our culture and societies in profound ways.

With the recent passing of laws regarding homosexuality in Russia, music has been thrust into the spotlight time and time again. Perhaps most notably, we have seen protests in New York City, both at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall. Commentary has not been in short supply regarding these events, with passionate voices crying out on both sides of the issue.

In the center of the debate, at least on this side of the Atlantic, are two living legends of the opera house and concert hall, both of whom happen to be Russian. In the case of one, protest has been met with silence; in the case of the other, a weak protest was issued, concluding with a very disturbing sentence: “In my next life, when I will be a politician, we talk!”

It is important to note that this has become much more than an issue of gay rights. The problem has gone far beyond a question of modern ethics and the role of government in the bedroom. No, this is a question of human rights, for when people are being persecuted and even hunted down, as a group, in an organized and official manner, there can be no silence, no idle talk. But to hear that from an artist is especially egregious.

The role of the artist in society is to be a good and productive citizen. There are other perks, of course: fame and fortune, celebrity and privilege, adulation and acknowledgement on a grand scale. But the artist has a unique and powerful voice. Politicians? A politician has tremendous power over the flesh and fortunes of men. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, ignorance is too often the domain of the statesman—and impotence. How may they address that over which they have no power, the immortal human spirit, when power is all they know and desire? Yes, they are rendered impotent! The value of money will change; empires and nations will rise and fall, wars will be won and lost, borders drawn and redrawn, power gained and lost, parties created and disbanded. This is the fate of the politician, no matter how skilled or even how altruistic. But the artist will always remain; the voice of the artist will be the voice of the people, the manifestation of will, the link between the physical and metaphysical.

I can appreciate that these two artists may have concerns for themselves and their families and certainly hope that they may remain safe and healthy. But excuses cannot be made. We have seen too many ‘issues of politics’ become the genesis of unimaginable tragedy. Jim Crow and Nuremburg laws were once ‘just’ public policy, after all; how can we stand idly by?

The artist must be an idealist. Everything else, whether a tribulation or a benefit, is merely a distraction. We are called to serve our fellow man. And we have plenty of examples. Perhaps most fittingly, we may examine Shostakovich. Arguably the most honest and brave artist of the last century, Shostakovich defied official orders time and time again, quite literally risking life and limb to compose music which was honest. Yes, he was patriotic; yes, he served his country and culture. But he knew he had an even higher calling: he served human-kind. And for that, he was willing to risk everything, time after time.

I am reminded of a quote from the wonderful movie ‘A Few Good Men.’ As he is cross examined on the stand, the antagonist defends his honor—and, in fact, honor in general. “We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line,” he says. In the world of art, we use many similar words: ideals, talent, genius, virtuosity, faithfulness and, yes, honor. We use them over and over and over again until they very nearly lose their meaning, their potency and their value. They become…nearly a punch line, or at worst, a cliché. The worst part of a cliché is that the value of an ideal becomes muddled or lost. It is time for us to stop speaking and acting in cliché; it is time to stop being casual with language and ideals, time to stop making excuses. The artist must be the voice of the people. Ideals, genius, fidelity, loyalty, and honor: these are our duty.