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?

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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.

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.

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.

Dear Sesame Street: Less Hip Hop, please.

I have been a parent for a little more than five years now. It has been an incredible adventure from the first moment, filled with moments of terror, triumph, unimaginable joy and unexpected sorrow. I love being a father as much as I love being a musician. Indeed, the moment I held my son in my arms for the first time, I was reminded of the moment I first heard one of my own compositions being brought from the page to the concert hall–though this moment was never to be replicated. 

Being a father has brought me some unexpected inspiration as well. Simple things–watching my son hold a hermit crab for the first time and squeal in delight, or chasing a frog across the lawn–become epic adventures and moments of discovery. And he always makes me better. Indeed, before he was born, I had little desire to teach. Now, I feel compelled to teach as much and often as possible (and, as a happy consequence, to seek out knowledge and aspire to wisdom with a passionate urgency.) I have become keenly aware of education in all its forms: the school system and curriculum, naturally, but also the history of education. 

What I see has begun to disturb me greatly. A comprehensive commentary is far beyond the scope of such a modest article as this and, frankly, is probably beyond the author as well. But I know what I see and hear, and I know what I want to see (and what I feel is missing.) The fundamental goal of education should not be the development of skills for a job; it should be the cognitive, intellectual, emotional and, yes, spiritual growth of a human being in a safe, social and challenging environment.

I believe that learning is a comprehensive art and ought to be compelling. Education and knowledge should not be compartmentalized; each discipline informs the next and keeps us from existing in the vacuum nature so abhors. Yet I see this more and more: each subject is isolated, broken into simple components and structured so that bits and pieces may be digested (or, perhaps more accurately, consumed) for the all-important test. The days of the trivium and quadrivium are long gone. 

Media has become such an important part of our daily lives, for better or worse, that it is difficult to argue against it as a serious tool for children’s development and education. PBS television has always done an excellent job in delivering quality content, and I myself grew up on two of their most important shows. One was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’ warmth, wisdom and sincerity made me, at the age of 5, want to be a better person, to keep my sense of wonder and curiosity no matter what my age. His show helped me realize that compassion, kindness and empathy were essential. 

The other show was Sesame Street. A natural community, where neighbors lived, worked, played, and shared everything together, it seemed much less a fantasy or fictional world than a pleasant snapshot of reality, a vignette and allegory which was gentle yet firm in its messages. The neighborhood was a place to visit, the community offering a standing invitation to join. 

As a child I can remember seeing Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman join, and, given my love affair with music, I was captivated. I always carried these images in my mind; music was there, it was everywhere, it was for everyone. It expressed emotions that I didn’t even know I had, and best of all, I could express them, too! 

So when my son became old enough to start watching some television, I was delighted to see that Sesame Street was still on the air. I was happy to have some sense of continuity in this ever changing world.

Then I saw a recent show–and I was surprised. 

Why, oh why, is there so much rap and hip hop on Sesame Street? Where did it come from–and what educational purpose does it serve? This is ‘entertainment’ at best. It is not just guest artists; we see puppets casually rapping in certain segments, for no apparent reason.

Let us examine a few things. Rap and hip hop take two great arts–language (especially poetry) and music, and reduce them to simple elements. For young children, simpler is usually better. However, these elements are not executed in a manner which is fundamentally sound. Poetry, an art which has challenged some of the best literary minds in history, is reduced to ‘rhymes’ which are often trite and usually clever at best. Are these things not better exemplified by Mother Goose or Emily Dickinson? In addition, this language is riddled with slang, not to mention profanity–to things that are hardly healthy for developing minds which need to learn the building blocks of language not just technically but also socially. Then there is the question of the music. I think there is one term which can sum up the issue: beats. Yes, in these genres of music, it is all about the ‘beat.’ Forget, for a moment, that an incredibly powerful element of music (rhythm) is reduced to a single word. What does the word ‘beat’ make you think of? Beating eggs, beating someone at something, beating somebody up…’beat’ is a violent word. And that is the entry point with rap and hip hop. But what do we say in other forms of music, namely classical/art music? We speak of a ‘pulse.’ What does that word conjure images of? The pulse–the heartbeat, the first and most salient vital sign, a proof of life itself. Pulse…passion….energy…vitality….ever changing, at its safest when steady yet helpful when varying, racing ahead or slowing down. And that is what ‘classical’ music contains: every element of life, a window to worlds, ideas, experiences and knowledge. Isn’t that what children and young adults need?

The argument seems to be that this kind of music–rap, hip hop, popular music–is what children are most likely to be exposed to and, therefore, will relate to most easily. Yet this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they are introduced to this as a matter of course then it will be their sole frame of reference. And they will be: this music is heard in everything from television commercials to the background music in restaurants and retail stores. It is in movies and television shows, ring tones and video games. And if they have older siblings…

It seems, lately, almost taboo to criticize or even question rap and hip hop. Yet it is an important issue–one well worth discussing. It is not merely that I wish we had more violinists, opera singers, conductors and string quartets visiting (or living on!) ‘The Street’–though that would be wonderful! It is a need to demonstrate that culture is more than politically correct characters traipsing about the screen providing entertainment. Culture is about life. Isn’t it time to discuss that with our children?

Listening to classical music: The concern of a generation.

I have had the chance to go to a few concerts over the last week. It has been refreshing to take part in the wonderful social experience of the concert after a long and busy summer, a time in which the ‘routine’ of concert culture is often broken or unpredictable. 

The concerts were excellent: the musicians played beautifully, the repertoire was fantastic and well chosen and the venues were intimate. There was just one issue: the audience was old. Very old.

Please don’t misunderstand: I have nothing against the chronologically advanced. But it is quite disheartening to see an audience comprised almost exclusively (often but for the family, students and friends of the performers) of senior citizens. Where or where are the 20 and 30-somethings? For that matter, were are the 40-somethings?!

It is an ongoing problem, one which orchestras across the country are struggling to address. From marketing campaigns to special pricing on concerts, from music in the schools programs to ‘crossover’ events, classical music organizations are looking for solutions. The results are heralded in different ways, ranging from the benign (being more active in the community, being a community leader in education) to the boderline-suspicious (Revolutionizing Classical music! Making classical music cool!)

The lamentation of this issue is often met with a chuckle, usually followed by a gentle sigh and shrug of the shoulders as if to say ‘Well, what can we do? Times are changing. Young people don’t have the same interests or traditions their grandparents did.’

I spoke with a friend of mine who is not a classical music aficionado nor a regular concert-goer; however, she enjoys classical music, has a good education, a good career and an appreciation for culture. She’s also in her late 30s. This makes her a perfect example of the ‘type of person’ that we hope to get into the concert hall regularly. I asked her directly: Why don’t you go? What would get you, or your friends or students, to make classical music a regular part of your life? 

Her reply was quite frustrating, and something I’ve heard before: “Give the kids something they can relate to!” she offered. “You know, you could bring in a hip-hop group and have a violinist play something over the hip-hop beats…and the kids might think ‘Hey, this is cool–now I think I’ll try listening to it with just the violin.’ That could be good!”

I know what the reaction might be to my frustration: accusations that I’m an elitist, a snob, stubborn. But that isn’t it. Not this time. It made me frustrated. It made me mad. And maybe, just maybe, this could be an acceptable response. Why? I’ll tell you why.

There is no reason that classical music itself could not be an independent frame of reference for young people. Why shouldn’t young people–children, teens, young professionals–have a basic knowledge of Beethoven and Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky? These men wrote long before ‘hip hop’–along with rock and pop–ever existed. And they were not living and writing in ivory towers: their message, for lack of a better term, was for everyone. 

And the idea that classical music needs to be made ‘cool’ and ‘relevant’ is insulting. Nobody should have to apologize for Beethoven and Mozart. Nobody should have to dumb it down. Nobody should have to dilute it or allow it to be associated with just one mood. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me Oh, I like classical music…it is so relaxing….

I will not apologize. 

There are other criticisms: concerts–or even single pieces–are too long. The atmosphere is stuffy and formal. There are all these rules. The music is boring and antiquated–sorry, old fashioned.

I’ll give you one of those for free, but I’m taking issue with the rest. Sure, the atmosphere can be stuffy. You know why? Because some people relish the chance to be snobby. Well, that performance was okay, but it wasn’t nearly as good as my Bernstein recording!” Ok, buddy, we get it: you collect records, you know a bit about classical music, and you enjoy lording it over people you perceive to be less educated and intelligent than you are. But you know what? That snobby comment may have just turned a future subscriber into someone who will never set foot in here again. Nice going! And you know what else? Being snobby doesn’t make the music any better. The guy who bravely bought a ticket to his first symphony concert has every bit as much the right to enjoy the concert as you do. So yes: those who allege that concerts can be stuffy, I acknowledge your complaint. We will work on that. 

Now, onto the rest:

Concerts are too long? You can’t sit through a 45 minute symphony? Believe it or not, sitting still and concentrating for extended periods of time are actual, important life skills. Grown up skills. If you can’t concentrate on something for 30 or 45 minutes, the problem may be with you rather than with the music. That doesn’t mean that every 45 minute long piece of music is a masterpiece–but maybe you could take the time to find out. And frankly, these composers wrote about some pretty serious things: life, death, love, faith, desire, war. Those things can’t always fit into a 3 minute song. Sorry. 

Next: The setting is formal and there are rules: well, yeah. First, not every concert is formal. Plenty aren’t. But lets assume you’re at a concert which has a bit of formality involved. Fine. You know what? Putting on the big boy pants, tying your own tie and being polite aren’t the worst things in the world to have to do. Again, these are actual life skills! Consider it practice for your cousin Marge’s wedding. We know you don’t like Marge that much–but trust us, you’ll love this Mozart. And those rules? Sorry, sometimes you have to follow the rules. Sure, trying not to cough, rattle paper, make a call or make other noises at certain times can be tough–but if you can’t at least try it for a couple of hours, again, the problem may not be with the music.

Finally…the music is boring? Excuse me? Boring, did you say? Listen to Shostakovich. The guy lived with a bag packed, looking over both shoulders, waiting to die a long, painful, horrible death for, you know, not wanting to call a violent, erratic sociopath (Stalin) the greatest guy who ever lived. Good ol’ Dimitri defied official orders time and time again; he was brave, and he was honest: this fear (and his love of his homeland) found its way into his music. Listen to the 3rd movement of the 8th symphony. Go, ahead, do it–then tell me that this music is boring. What? More examples? Hm…well, lets see….how about the last movement of Beethoven’s 7th: if you can listen to that and not want to dance, then you are not alive. How about the 2nd movement of Mahler’s 5th? Chaos! Barber’s Adagio–need a tissue? And there are many, many more examples I could give–thousands, quite literally.

Yes, there is work to do. Yes, the classical music world is hardly without sin. But the music needs no apology. I am through apologizing for this great music, this wonderful tradition, this living history. 

It is time for a new generation.

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.