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?


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.

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.

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.

In preparation of a post-Tchaikovsky Russia

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

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

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

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

Tchaikovsky was also gay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Copland: Appalachian Spring and the miracle of the American Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beethoven for Boston: A Search for meaning amid chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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