Monday, December 26, 2011

Special Year-End Musical Awards

Today Daniel J. Wakin of the New York Times offered his own list of awards modeled upon the plethora of other prizes presented at year's end.  While mentioning the many musical organizations in serious financial hardship (I did not know that the Utica Symphony had gone under), he did also make note of some of the year's highlights, including:
  • "the happiest final chord" presented to my beloved Detroit Symphony, as it concluded a gut-wrenching six-month strike with a concert in which the audience embraced their orchestra with "an outpouring of warmth and enthusiasm from the audience, showing, if only for an evening, what music can mean to a city."
The entire awards list can be found here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

We have to admit....

....that James Levine's career as a conductor has come to a close.  The New York Times announced here that he has cancelled all performances through the end of the 2012-13 season (which has yet to be announced).  It is clearly obvious that Maestro Levine's health problems are far worse than have been reported.

As I have said in previous posts, this is a sad way for one of the greats of our time to exit the stage.  Mr. Levine first conducted a Met performance of Tosca in 1971 and was named its principal conductor in 1973.  Since that time, he has led over 2500 performances and turned the Met Orchestra into one of the finest ensembles in the world, offering a series of concerts from both the Met stage as well as Carnegie Hall.

The management at the Met has already named Fabio Luisi its principal conductor until Levine would be able to return.  Given his recurrent health issues (which seem primarily focused on severe back pain) and the fact that he turns 70 in 2013, it is difficult to imagine Levine's return to the podium.  One can only hope that the organization will offer an appropriate tribute to the conductor who has made the company among the best in the world.

* * * * * * * * * *

In other musical news around the globe:
  • After finally admitting that nothing can be done to improve the acoustics in its pit, the Sydney Opera Orchestra will actually play in another room(!) with the sound transmitted electronically into the house during next year's Australian premiere of Korngold's Die Tote Stadt.
  • Iris Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer is suing the Bayreuth Wagner Foundation and the city of Leipzig for her share of Richard's Bechstein.
  • Anthony Tommasini writes here of a resurgence among orchestras for new music!  He notes, among the events at the New York Philharmonic that music director Alan Gilbert has elected to end the season at the Park Avenue Armory, one of few spaces large enough to accommodate a performance of Stockhausen's Gruppen.  This entire article is a great read, discussing the uses of alternative performance spaces as well as new voices in "classical" music and opera.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

This is optimism?

OK, so I'm trying to stay high about Detroit, its sports teams (hey, the Tigers won their division and the Lions are a vast improvement from the 0-16 season of 2008) and in particular, its symphony--one of the first orchestras I ever heard in the flesh.  But one has to wonder when one reads:

2010-11 deficit:  $1.8 million, even though the season didn't begin (and no one was paid) until April.  Of course that was much better than the $5.3 million deficit the previous year.

2011-12 deficit (projected):  $3 million.

2011-12 ticket income (projected): $5.7 million, down from $7.2 million before the strike.

And lest we forget, the orchestra still owes $54 million on the "Max," the orchestra's new music center (a significant addition to historic Orchestra Hall).  In actuality, the entire bill was paid in full before DSO management decided to invest the contributions instead of using the gifts as intended.  The economy tanked (particularly in the Motor City) and the rest is, it all here.

Does a great (truly) singer make for an acceptable conductor?

A review of the Met's Madama Butterfly just in from the New York Times.  Arguably the greatest tenor of our time, Placido Domingo, is now extending his career by stepping off the stage and into the orchestra pit.  This is not the first less than glowing review I have read of a musician whom I admire greatly.  Of course, even though he is nearly 71 and still (mostly) in possession of that incredible sound, Domingo is obviously too old to be convincing in the many roles (136 as of July 2011!) that he has played.

Interestingly enough, Domingo made one of his major debuts (New York City Opera) in Madama Butterfly in 1965.  He has opened the season of the Metropolitan Opera a record 21 times.  To say that he has sung everywhere would not be hyperbole. 

I have always considered him to be a class act.  I'd much rather see him bow out as a conductor than possibly become a caricature of one.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Musical chairs or falling dominos: Levine...Chailly...who's next?

Conductor James Levine, still the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera (even though it is not known when--or if--he will ever conduct there again) stepped down from his role with the Boston Symphony last season.  As has been the case in New York, his performances in Boston were frequently cancelled due to a variety of health issues.

The New York Times reported today that Ricardo Chailly, leader of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, has cancelled his own upcoming concerts with the BSO.  Seen by many as a possible heir apparent for the vacant position, this is certainly damaging to his future opportunities with the orchestra.  Read more here.

While an ensemble the stature of the Boston Symphony will surely have no difficulty finding "suitable" replacements for the programs, this does set the orchestra back from its quest of obtaining a permanent music director.  This writer hopes that the organization does not take the "New York/Chicago route" of hiring an "elder statesman" (such as Lorin Maazel or Bernard Heitink) to serve as a kind of caretaker until a music director is named.  To me, there remain a number of highly qualified candidates that might be lured away to what may be arguably America's greatest orchestra:  David Robertson (St. Louis Symphony) anyone?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A worldwide orchestra...

Here is the text to the new #1 song in the Netherlands, a "protest track" sung by many of that nation's leading popular singers and performed by the "Metropole Orchestra."  This is the musicians' response to anticipated cuts in government funding to Dutch cultural institutions.  May it resound around the world.

Miss the target words they seem to be powerless
Your hands empty silence in the absence of a story
Your eyes are just .. might get
They still speak a language unknown to me
.... No one to reach
You would like to scream, but where can you still hearing
The world makes you tired you dare not look at
So shut up and the roof because you do not voice calls

But if I sing to you you will shine
because that is the language that has everything
That your thoughts and dreams give wings
As a fire in the chill
If you feel cold and alone
And that puts an end to the silence around you
You are not alone

Every heart an instrument
And the fate of the conductor
So you will agree with the rest
In a world orchestra

But if I sing to you you will shine
because that is the language that has everything
That your thoughts and dreams give wings
As a fire in the chill
If you feel cold and alone
And that puts an end to the silence around you
You are not alone
But if I sing to you you will shine
because that is the language that has everything
That your thoughts and dreams give wings

Your words they seem to lack purpose become powerless ...

The video can be found here.

The highest paid conductor

The Dude
Currently it's Gustavo Dudamel.  The Dude rakes in somewhere between $1.4 million and $1.6 million/year.  Not bad for a part-time job (remembering that the average MD leads some ten sets of performances these days).  At the highest rate, he's only making $200,000 more than the LA Phil's General Manager, Deborah Borda, who allegedly works 60 hour weeks.  Is either of them worth the money being paid to them?  Judging from the financials, it's quite hard to argue.  For more information, check out this from the LA Times.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Staging Messiah?

Apparently the Pittsburgh Symphony will do just about anything to get a crowd into Heinz Hall: now they're turning Handel's Messiah into an opera.  The most revealing note in the descriptive article about the event?  Conductor Manfred Honeck, while admittedly has led "enhanced" versions of the Requiem masses of both Mozart and Verdi, has never conducted Messiah!

I'm still trying to get a handle (no pun intended) on such a cursory knowledge of the repertoire.  How does one rise to the podium of one of America's great orchestras without conducting a work I first led in an ad hoc performance in my early 20s?

Reaching the goal in a roundabout way...

"When we focus too hard on anything and apply unreasonably high standards and expectations or targets, we soon become anti-social, overly critical and stressed out. Everything then vexes us and nothing is good enough. We cease to enjoy life, to judge things fairly and we are unable to find the practical solutions which would make life seem worth living. Very soon matters are on top of us, because our focus on one area means another has suffered neglect. The unfinished tasks add to the stress, and there is usually someone who feels they have had a raw deal from this period of dedicated obsession and won’t mind saying so. Pushed to an extreme, the workaholic attitude causes us to get ill or to fall out with people. We start to make poor decisions with dire consequences. Over a life-time, such one-sidedness can cause us to miss out on many of the good things of life altogether, leaving a catalogue of personal disasters behind us.

For musicians, these pressures are particularly acute, because the temptations to over-work are great indeed. Opportunities have to be seized like rare birds, while the pressures to perform at a high level are immense. Travelling is often part of the package, so we rarely turn up as fresh as a daisy, and this often makes us dissatisfied and anxious. Sometimes the technical demands of the music require huge effort that does not bring much musical or financial reward. Then many musicians are sometimes juggling with family life, teaching, practice and performance. It is perhaps a cruel truth that a performer always believes they can improve, even when any improvement would be marginal and go unnoticed by the public. Musicians thrive on self-criticism, and arguably you have to be a bit obsessed to be a musician at all. But these very qualities can exert physical and mental pressures which can all too quickly destroy well-being.  Because a musician aspires to enjoy their work, if they do not, there can be a sense of bitter disappointment. To avoid this, we need to learn to know when to quit trying so hard and living with the compromise."

Peter Davison, in Kenneth Woods' blog
A View from the Podium

For the entire article, look here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Will the bad news ever stop?

Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall
Quite recently I finished reading Michael Charry's biography of conductor Georg Szell, most noted for his lengthy tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra.  While it seems as though the book whitewashes some of the stories of the maestro's temperament, it proves to be invaluable as an in-depth view into the man and how he created one of the world's great ensembles in one of America's  rust belt cities.

The Clevelander's were the rage of Europe during Szell's tenure and all signs indicate that they still play at an extremely high level.  Franz Welser-Möst, its conductor, has continued the traditions of the ensemble, while expanding residencies in Miami, Lucerne, and Vienna, as well as a future excursion into Paris.  The orchestra's endowment, now set at $130 million, increased by $24 million in the past year, a remarkable feat.  However, the financial picture is not as bright as those numbers would indicate.

Deficits for the past two years have been $2 million and $2.3 million, respectively.  This fiscal year the deficit is slated to be $2.7 million, all of this with increased fundraising commitments and ticket sales at Severance Hall.

The officers of the orchestra's Board of Trustees was just re-elected for another year.  One has to hope that this same-old leadership gets its financial house in order.  This fine ensemble is in no way teetering on a Philadelphia-like precipice, but a continuing bleeding of dollars will only eventually catch up with them, especially in our present economy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Everything's Up To Date.....

On June 23, I wrote of the pending opening of the Kauffman Center for the Arts in Kansas City.  The Center, with separate auditoria for opera/ballet and the Kansas City Symphony, appears to be everything that its builders promised and more.  Here is proof that the philanthropic efforts of an American city, sometimes down on its luck, can rise above even the worst of economic crises to build something equal to the artistic efforts playing within it, raising the level of the art and artists to even greater heights.

Convention Hall interior, capacity 15,000!
Performing arts facilities in Kansas City have a rather precarious history; the first of these, Convention Hall, burned to the ground a little more than a year after its opening and only a few months before the scheduled Democratic National Convention of 1900.  Demonstrating what would become known as "Kansas City Spirit," it was rebuilt before the July 4 opening of that event.  Unfortunately, the 1922-24 meetings of the Ku Klux Klan at the facility seem to outshine any artistic endeavors that took place there.

The Convention Hall was demolished in in 1936-37 and turned into a parking lots) as part of a WPA project to build the new Municipal Auditorium.  The new building was designed as a multi-purpose facility with a 7300 seat area, 2400 seat music hall, and a "little theater" holding approximately 400.  For 75 years, the Municipal Auditorium served as home for all of the area's major cultural institutions:  orchestra, ballet, and opera.  The original Kansas City Philharmonic was dissolved in its 49th season, following a series of strikes and a general decline of corporate and community funding.  Almost immediately, however a group of local music supporters inaugurated the new Kansas City Symphony in 1982.  Under its new name the symphony moved into the Lyric Theater, originally a 3000-seat Shrine Auditorium.

The Lyric Theater
Founded in 1957, the Kansas City Ballet made the Lyric its home from the beginnings of its history.  Although it has in fact gone through several name changes, including the State Ballet of Missouri, it has returned to its roots (and original name) and appears to be a quite solvent third partner in the Kauffman Center triumvirate.

To say that the new Kauffman Center is stunning is a gross understatement.  Zachary Wolff writes in the New York Times, "From the outside the two theaters are curving inverted ziggurats, pristinely white, that evoke Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum; the stainless-steel cladding on the arched exterior gives off a Frank Gehry vibe. And those nesting arches recall a familiar Australian opera house: when I told someone here that I was in town to see the new performing-arts center, he said, “Oh, the Sydney-looking one?”

Muriel Kauffman Theater
The Muriel Kauffman Theater is an 1800-seat house for the Lyric Opera and Kansas City Ballet.  With a 5000 square feet stage space and an orchestra pit seating 95 musicians it would seem to more than serve the needs of the companies that use it.  Its size also creates a level of intimacy rarely available in theaters much larger (it seems as though 1900 seats is the threshold here).  As operas have almost all taken to the presentation of supertitles for foreign-language works, the Kauffman takes that one step further: offering the new Figaro supertitle system, with personal monitors on each seat back.

Helzberg Hall
Helzberg Hall, a 1600-seat auditorium, is the new home of the Kansas City Symphony.  With a stage that extends a good length into the house, some 40% of the seats are located beside or behind the orchestra.  In fact, the furthest seat is said to be just over 100 feet from the stage.  The designers of the space also did not make any short cuts either as the hall includes a new pipe organ constructed by the renowned Casavant Freres Company, consisting of 79 stops, 102 ranks, and 5,548 pipes.  Would that hall builders/renovators in some of our other great cities had such foresight.

The entire center, which is connected by the Brandmeyer Great Hall, a large glassed-in atrium, is truly a sight to behold.  Placed on a 13-acre campus not far from the city's up and coming downtown, one can easily tell that the late Ms. Kauffman's dream, combined with civic generosity and brilliant architects have created a stunning model for arts facilities.  And, in a reminder to all the sports franchises demanding civic support or else, the Kauffman Center--all $366 million worth--was built solely with private dollars.

Kauffman Center and proximity to downtown

I know that there is fine music being made in this city as I heard the Lyric Opera many years ago in a Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci double bill.  Now, with the construction of this incredible pantheon for all of Kansas City's arts, there is much more reason to travel west (and south).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bad news now from?

Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, PA
The fact that the Pittsburgh Symphony played to a sparse audience on its November 5 subscription concert may be a harbinger of things to come for this respected ensemble.  Mark Tamburri, the President and CEO of the orchestra--which has included Victor Herbert, Fritz Reiner, William Steinberg, Lorin Maazel and Maris Jansons--announced his immediate resignation on November 14.  He was replaced almost on-the-spot by James Wilkinson, a lawyer and Vice-Chair of the orchestra's Board of Trustees since 2003.  Wilkinson has absolutely no experience in orchestra management.

Still, Harold Smoliar, chair of the orchestra committee, says of the new boss, "While I know he may never have had the job of general manager of an orchestra, I think he knows an awful lot about the Pittsburgh Symphony and what makes it tick."  Personally I have been part of musical organizations that have employed "non-artistic" management personnel.  One of these showed her total ignorance of musical matters by hiring an operations manager, stating that "she had taken an orchestration class." Obviously that makes one qualified!

Pittsburgh has been running multi-million dollar deficits over the past few years and "sparse audiences" don't make for good forecasts for the future.  Of course, maybe it was the programming of a new work by Cindy McTee, Walter Piston's Viola Concerto, Vaughan Williams' "Dives and Lazarus," Jean Francaix's The Flower Clock and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.  Even reviewer Mark Kanny called it an "odd program."

It sounds to me as though Tamburri possibly decided to get out while the getting was good.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Yet another symphonic crisis

Meyerson Hall:  another "wow" experience
Just today, Norman Lebrecht broke the news in his Slipped Disc blog that the Dallas Symphony is on the precipice of insolvency.  Sources on the ground indicate that corporate and individual support is on the decline--undoubtedly another result of these difficult economic times--and that the ensemble is currently selling only 65% of its house, the renowned Meyerson Hall.  Expecting a potential $6.5 million deficit this season, the organization has already announced a series of salary freezes and the elimination of five weeks of subscription concerts for the 2012-13 season.

This news comes a little over two years after the orchestra cancelled a nine-city 2010 European tour.  The ensemble did appear at Carnegie Hall in May of this year, offering the New York premiere of Steven Stucky's oratorio August 4, 1964.  Written in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Lyndon Johnson, the work reflects on catastrophic events of that day in history, including the discovery of the bodies of three civil rights workers and the Gulf of Tonkin incident.  New York Times reviewer Anthony Tomassini spoke much more of the work than the performance of the orchestra rather than saying, "This was Mr. van Zweden’s first performance in New York as the Dallas Symphony’s music director. The goal of Spring for Music is to empower orchestras to take chances with their programming. That Mr. van Zweden and the Dallas players seized the opportunity speaks well of their shared artistic priorities and working relationship."

One can certainly try to guess the reasons for the orchestra's troubles.  Is it really all about the economy?  Or does a month-long Mendelssohn Festival just not play into the desires (and pocketbooks) of Dallas patrons?  One can only hope that a wise business plan will be put into place to save yet another great American orchestra.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Still lots of bad orchestra news...

The Philadelphia Orchestra seems to have found its way into a bigger mess as it tries to drag itself out of bankruptcy proceedings.  Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes of the organization's attempts to further renege on its pension obligations and a newly filed suit blaming the AFM for "harassing" the orchestra and its donors.  It just appears to be another never-ending tale of poor management making bad decisions and then blaming the musicians (or their duly-negotiated contracts) for the financial mess.

All fall concerts of the Louisville Orchestra have been cancelled as the musicians of that ensemble rejected the management's latest offer and have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board "claiming that orchestra officials have refused to bargain in good faith."  Executive Director Rob Birman (who actually cut his organizational teeth in Dubuque, IA) has even stated that the orchestra is considering hiring replacement musicians, a difficult task as the organization is now on the AFM "unfair list."  The Louisville Orchestra is also under a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan approved in August.

The Syracuse Symphony has been dissolved, having filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April.  The assets of that organization, including musical instruments, a large library of printed music, and its historical archives, have been divided up among three area educational and cultural organizations.  The New Mexico Symphony was also struck by Chapter 7 in the past spring.

There are signs of the possibility of a resurgent Honolulu Symphony, but thus far, nothing has come to fruition.  As has been my experience in academia, it takes a long time to build a stable ensemble or musical organization.  Unfortunately, such ensembles can be undone in the blink of an eye.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Another look at America's orchestras

Practice?  Nope.  If you have enough cash, you can get to Carnegie Hall!

The 120th season is well underway at Carnegie Hall and an incessant stream of great orchestras is making its annual pilgrimage to that musical mecca.

The opening night gala, held October 5 featured an American orch.....oops, it featured world superstar (and the man who conducts with a toothpick if anything at all) Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg.  The program of Russian favorites also included cellist Yo Yo Ma in the Tchaikovsky "Rococo" Variations (yawn).  Three subsequent performances  included a complete cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies as well as excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, the grandest warhorse of them all--Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and the first symphony of Shostakovich.  In all, nothing new here.

Possibly American orchestras can save the day (or the artform) at our nation's musical pantheon.  Here's a run-down:

Orpheus (October 13):  Mendelssohn, Haydn, Brahms and--what's this?  A world premiere by Cynthia Wong:  Memoriam.

MET Orchestra (October 16): sans its music director, James Levine.  Mozart, Mozart, Strauss guessed it! (maybe not) a John Harbison premiere:  Closer To My Own Life.

Leo Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra (October 21):  Lots of Bach and a smattering of Schoenberg.

(By the way, even though its not an American orchestra, the Vietnam National Symphony made its first American appearance, performing, among other works, three works by indigenous composers.  No apologies here!)

Philadelphia Orchestra (October 25):  Ho-hum, Faure, Beethoven and Shostakovich (at least it was his 10th symphony)

Minnesota Orchestra (October 27):  Not one, but TWO Tchaikovsky's and Neilsen's Third Symphony.

Mannes Orchestra (November 2):  Even this is pretty much old hat:  Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountain, Kernis, and Rite of Spring.  It's almost 100 years old!  That's not new anymore!

And so it goes.  The Atlanta Symphony throws in a Rachmaninoff Concerto so the audience can swallow its diet of a premiere and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy.  

Readers should look toward Greg Sandow's blog.  He is developing a number of new ideas in audience growth and possible ways of advancing the American orchestra, rather than allowing it to become (if it hasn't already) a museum piece visited only by an every-graying populace.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Because I can be accused of being too serious...

I don't know where I discovered this, but if only our conductor's could communicate as much of the music by only using the face...(and not the one pictured above)

Of course, it helps to have a "communicative" face as well as the ability to stay serious through the entire exercise, which is, in an of itself, quite funny.


Longing for the academy

Besides working with a variety of interesting and talented students (from whom I have often received as much as I have given) among the things I miss about teaching is the interaction with my colleagues.  It is radically different teaching in a college/university atmosphere than in a public school.  In the latter, informal gatherings with one's colleagues usually take place at lunch time, in a crowded room, with individuals discussing usually the matters of the day, problem students, the latest word about administrators or the teacher's union.  In the former, the topics can range from James Joyce to politics to one's view of his/her discipline relating to the micro and macro worlds.

Karl Paulnack
I long for people like Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division of the Boston Conservatory, who, in his welcome address spoke of the ancient Greek's view of music as "[having} a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us."  This is obviously a more "big picture" view of our discipline and not one that we encounter in our day-to-day "grind" of teaching, rehearsing, studying, practicing.

Paulnack also spoke of two significant events:  the composition of Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time and his own personal reflection on the events of September 11, 2001.  The Messaien would still be a profound work without its contextual framework, but--knowing that it sprang from the composer's interment in a Nazi concentration camp--makes it even more so.  The composer took the tools that he had, four players: a violin, clarinet, cello and piano and--like many others in the camps--created art.  As Paulnack states, to those prisoners, "the camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, 'I am alive, and my life has meaning.'"

Paulnack found that he was unable to play the piano on the morning of September 12; he even thought, "in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again."  But somehow, life did return to some sense of normalcy, but not without a public outpouring of grief:  in the form of a presentation of the Brahms Requiem, that was assembled in less than a week's time by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic.  Again to Mr. Paulnack, "That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night."

Paulnack shares several other tales, which must be read here.  As Charles Munch speaks of the sacred trust of the conductor, Paulnack likens musicians to therapists for the human soul, or a spiritual version of a chiropractor or physical therapist:  "someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well."

As our society--both in the micro of our individual communities and the macro of the larger world around us--continues to debate the very necessity of the arts, it seem vital to remember Mr. Paulnack's admonition to his students.  "Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives."

These are the kinds of discussions I miss and people like Karl Paulnack are those that I miss discussing them with...

Friday, October 14, 2011

The profession, past and present, musical chairs

George Szell
Of late I have been reading Michael Charry's biography, George Szell: A Life of Music.  As the conductor, who did remake the Cleveland Orchestra into the finest ensemble of its day, is regarded as one of the old school tyrants of the podium, it is interesting to read a text revealing very little of this side of the man.  Szell's Wikipedia article notes:

"Szell's rehearsals were legendary for their intensity. Absolute perfection was demanded from every player. Musicians would be dismissed on the spot for making too many mistakes or simply questioning Szell's authority. Although Szell was not alone in this practice — Toscanini was nothing if not dictatorial — such firings would not happen today: musicians' unions are much stronger now than they were then. If Szell heard a player practicing backstage before a concert and did not like what he heard, he would not hesitate to berate the musician and give detailed notes on how the music should be played, despite the concert being minutes away. Szell’s autocratic style extended to giving suggestions to the Severance Hall janitorial staff on mopping technique and what brand of toilet paper to use in the restrooms." (Donald Rosenberg: The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None)

Of course, very little of this view of the dictatorial taskmaster is present in the Charry biography (nb: Charry was one of Szell's apprentice conductors).  So what is one to believe?  The wranglings of the critics or the near-adulation of one who was really there?

* * * * * * * * * *

Riccardo Muti
Riccardo Muti has now become firmly ensconced at the helm of the Chicago Symphony and apparently he is experiencing a much better adjustment to the orchestra than his first go-around in the United States: as Eugene Ormandy's replacement at the Philadelphia.  Of course, Philadelphia had known only two music directors from 1912 to 1980!  (Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski)  But it was readily apparent that Muti intentionally set out to change that orchestra, which was renowned for the luster of its string sound, brought about originally by Stokowski's preference for free-bowing.  Muti also was seen in his earlier days as a rather aristocratic podium presence and many felt that he turned the once-great ensemble into just another generically-sounding American orchestra.  Muti had a major falling out with La Scala in 2003, but he had apparently twice been courted by the New York Philharmonic, which he spurned by signing with the CSO in 2008.  All signs are that he has mellowed with age (he turned 70 in July) and is making wonderful music--and wooing important contributors--in America's "Second City."

Muti's predecessor once removed, Daniel Barenboim, has just been named music director of La Scala.  Barenboim, himself 69, is also the general music director of the Berlin State Opera, in addition to other lesser posts.  To say I have no love lost for Barenboim the person would be an understatement; the fact that he fathered two children with his mistress while his wife--cellist Jacqueline DuPre--was dying of multiple sclerosis, remains among the most incorrigible acts I can imagine.  I attended too many performances of the CSO in which he just seemed to go through the motions; it was painfully obvious that he did not desire to assume the myriad duties of an American music director, which--rightly or not--includes schmoozing with the supporters of the ensemble.  As a musician he has no time for consideration of performance practice or adherence to the score; rather, he is a conductor bound by subjective tradition instead of objective truth.  Donald Peck, former principal flutist with the CSO noted in his book The Right Place at the Right Time that the "Danny" they got as a music director was not the "Danny" who had appeared so many times as guest conductor.  Others have noted his arrogance and aloofness while finding inconsistencies within his interpretations of the score.

It is not difficult, in this case, to separate the man from the musician.  I find his music to be as cold and emotionless as his early personal life.  One can never separate ones personal attributes and integrity from the music that one makes, for, as Munch has stated in so many words, Conducting is a sacred trust.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Marketing to the Facebook generation

It is blatantly obvious that the "classical" music world needs to continue to discover new ways to introduce our "product" to a new audience.  Without selling out, the Seattle Opera has created a very humorous depiction of what a modern-day Carmen would face on the internet.

Be prepared to laugh, giggle, titter or whatever you do.  This one's for us music nerds.  The Figaro reference just about slew me!  Read more here.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Did these guys hear the same performance?

Netrebko as Anna Bolena
The Metropolitan Opera just opened its formal season with Donizetti's Anna Bolena, a setting of the tale of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of British King Henry VIII.  While taking a fair amount of liberties with historical fact (as many dramatizations do) this work is considered to be the composer's "breakout" composition.  This marks the Met's first production of the 1830 work.

It is interesting to note two distinctive critical reviews of the performance, first by Anthony Tommasini, of the New York Times, who heaps large amounts of praise upon all of the singers in the production.  While he notes that prima donna Anna Netrebko started "tentatively," her "approach is to sing coloratura as a lyrical elaboration of the vocal line, which she did affectingly as Anna. And she exudes vocal charisma."  Tommasini heaped equal amounts of praise on the other singers, including bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov ("earthy muscular voice"), and tenor Stephen Costello of whom he stated, "Mr. Costello mostly navigated the music’s demanding passagework and exposed high notes. To hear this rising artist stretching himself was part of the excitement."

Anthony Tommasini
In fact, Mr. Tommasini's major source of consternation was imposed upon conductor referring to Marco Armiliato’s "routine conducting."  In fact, "The singers seemed to feel supported by Mr. Armiliato, who was always there when they took liberties. That was the problem. This performance needed a conductor to instill some intensity into the music, to keep the cast more on edge, especially in the early scenes. Much of the action occurs in highly charged bursts of dramatic recitative. But too often here the orchestra chords that buttress the vocal lines were listless. And the orchestra’s playing lacked character."

Still, Mr. Tommasini concludes his review with albeit faint praise, "(General Manager Peter) Mr. Gelb has said that ideally the Met should make an artistic statement by presenting an ambitious new production every opening night. Two years ago he took a chance on Luc Bondy’s ill-conceived staging of Puccini’s Tosca. Last season came the premiere of Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Rheingold which is still being argued over, as audiences await the last two installments of the complete “Ring” cycle this season. Anna Bolena represented a different sort of risk. To make a case for this great, overlooked opera, a company must have a stellar soprano in the title role. Ms. Netrebko is that artist. If only she and her colleagues onstage had received more help from Mr. (David) McVicar (Production Director) and Mr. Armiliato."

Greg Sandow
Former music critic (of the Village Voice and Wall Street Journal) and now Julliard teacher Greg Sandow has a completely different take on the evening's proceedings:  "Anna Bolena, opening the Met Opera season, was pretty much a dud. And though that’s not what I want to focus on here, I can’t help thinking of another prominent Met production, last year’s Die Walküre, which was also a dud. More or less misconceived from start to finish, as Bolena was."

Sandow succinctly states that neither of the singers in the two major roles had the vocal heft in the lower range to make for a convincing performance.  "I won’t deny that Anna Nebtrebko sang Anna’s high-lying music very beautifully, but the meat of the role lies low...." and "we got Ildar Abdrazakov, a pleasant bass-baritone, whose voice rang out nicely above middle C, but couldn’t begin to produce the low notes the score calls for. He could sing them, obviously. But not with the scathing regal power the music is supposed to project."  Seems to be enough said there.

Sandow then takes aim at the tenor, whom Mr. Tommasini praised, "Additional rant: open the score, and page through the tenor’s two arias. You’ll find acrobatic passages in both, where the singer needs to leap up to high C, and then sing scales down from it. Stephen Costello, miscast in the part, couldn’t sing a high C. The sound he produced was — and, truly, I’m sorry to sound harsh, but this is the truth — an unmusical squeal, pitched vaguely in the area of high C. But maybe more like an unpitched sound, than a sung note. So why cast him? Maybe, a couple of years ago, when he would have been engaged for the part, he really could sing the Cs. But since he can’t do it now, why send him onstage to fail so badly?"

How viable is the Met in Peter Gelb's hands?

Sandow then launches into a lengthy discussion on the medium of 19th century bel canto opera and its implications within operatic history and potential pitfalls for contemporary performance.  He makes a very convincing argument and one deserving to be read in its entirety (see the link above).  Mr. Sandow makes distinct musical arguments about the performance based upon what appears to be a more than intimate knowledge of the genre and the score.   The opening night at our nation's most important opera house should usher in a triumphant view of the season to come.  With the other difficulties facing the Met (including our still-rampant economic crisis and the incapacitation of Music Director James Levine) we may just be left with a dud.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Music education: It's curricular, stupid!

The demise of music education in our country has been forecast at least as long as that of the modern day orchestra.  The exception is that this truly seems to be the case.  Starting with California's infamous Proposition 13 and continuing through the current economic crisis, school music programs are being slowly dismantled across the country.  And we (the music educators of our nation) are honestly doing little about it.  In fact, much of what we do in the name of music education is probably contributing to its current state.

In many schools, music is treated as an extracurricular or co-curricular component; worse yet, in others it is deemed an "activity," and stuffed into an "activity period" during which students engage in student council, yearbook and a plethora of other non-academic pursuits.  The simple fact is that music must be curricular and its teacher/mentors must insist that the subject be treated as such.  We must teach it as such, dispensing with many of our "activities" and get to the business of teaching an important part of the curriculum.  We must assess and evaluate it as such.  Without any of these aspects we do not deserve to be worthy of curricular status.

There are many reasons that the ranks of car salesmen, fund-raising companies and travel services are filled with former music "educators."  Of course it is because so many of them engaged in these activities when they should have been spending valuable time teaching!  But instead, we spend our busy hours selling fruit or planning trips to far-away climes with the reasoning that the students deserve a "reward" for all of their hard work.  To me, nothing can be farther from the truth:  the music and nothing but the music needs to be reward in itself!

Frank Battisti, Conductor Emeritus of the wind ensemble at the New England Conservatory of Music, has stated, "We have got to say that music is essential to the development of every child. Not just the ones in my band, so if I get the budget I want, and the space I want, I'm perfectly happy...I'm NOT happy. I'm not happy till every child has quality music education, because for the full development of that child that's essential. Now, it's not essential that they have activities, they've got plenty of them!  So, we have got to make band programs... music education programs."

"Because what happens, is we have band programs...I mean there are millions and millions and millions of kids who've sat for how many years in band programs...who graduate from high school, and they're not... they don't love music. They might love a spectrum of music, but they would have loved that without the band program.  The idea of education is taking what a kid loves and [can] do, and expanding it, not taking away anything, but expanding it to a larger world, so that they can appreciate more, they can love more, they can experience more."

"We gotta get serious people, about making band programs, music programs. That means the focus is on helping every single child grow to understand, appreciate, and love music. Now that's a big, big job. And it's easier to dangle prizes in front of kids, so we can say "we're better than everyone else" because we won the trophy.  The issue in art is not being better than anybody else, it's about finding who you are, and being creative. There's no trophies for that, but there's great enrichment and great fulfillment from it."

Carnegie:  Got enough money?  No practice necessary!

It's not about being better than anybody else; it's not about winning marching band competitions or traveling to Carnegie Hall (anybody can do that if they have the money, but that's another post altogether).  It is about being creative; it is about discovering a part of the student that he/she may not have known existed.  Great music is within itself a tremendous reward.

I am continually saddened when I meet someone who unequivocably states, "I don't know anything about music."  Nearly everyone in this country has had some form of music education, even if it is limited to grades K-8, and yet we have a large number of people who have not been involved in performance "activities" tell us that they know nothing about music. 

I was more struck at an interview/audition just last week when I was approached by a saxophone player in the ensemble who told me that she had never like the Holst E-flat Suite until that evening.  The magnificent E-flat Suite!  A hallmark of the repertoire and undeniably among the favorite works of any ensemble I have ever led!  Of course, one has to simply realize that no one had ever taken the effort to actually teach this great work to that player (and probably countless others who have played in groups with her).  It is so much more than just getting all the notes, rhythms, dynamics, phrasing, etc. to fall in the right places.  For within a perfect performance may exist no education at all because there has been no great enrichment or fulfillment.

We don't need to make excuses for the importance of our discipline within the curriculum.  We don't need to sponsor activities, win trophies, or take trips to "sell" our programs.  All we need to do is teach the music.  It all sounds extremely easy.  In fact, it's not that hard. 

Monday, September 19, 2011


U.S. Army Band, "Pershing's Own"
Herein is the second part of a series I began on August 25, putting my own programming to the test that I had proposed to the major (and not so major) American orchestras.  In preparing a concert for the wind medium I wrote "the wind conductor must be cognizant of his/her repertoire; there is no room for "early music specialists" or contemporary ensembles:  the wind conductor has to know it all.  Many in the field are constantly searching for the newest works, sort of a backlash to the "old days" in which much of the band's programming relied on transcriptions of orchestral works.  It is no more viable to play only original works for band as it is to totally ignore transcriptions, marches, etc.  The repertoire is both deep and eclectic, and our programming must recognize this."

Rossini: wrote for band?  Yep...
I remain quite surprised that players are not familiar with some of the hallmarks of the band repertoire.  At a recent open rehearsal of the Quad City Wind Ensemble not one single player had ever performed the Berlioz Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale (although I'd be willing to wager that most had played just about every transcription in the book.  The Rossini Fanfara Alla Corona di Italia is also little known, and an unfortunate happenstance that is:  this piece, the very last work composed by the operatic master, is an original work for our medium, and deserving to be better known.

As I have been in the process of revisiting and revising the remainder of the season, I have held off an assessment of the February and April concerts; now that everything is set, these can be examined in terms of:
  • Variety
  • Historical vs. contemporary elements
  • Enjoyment for the audience (we can stretch them a bit, but I would never want to present what one colleague calls a <insert name of well known wind conductor> death concert).
Herein is the layout for February, "A Sweet Serenade."  The performance, to be held away from our "home" at St. Ambrose University, will feature two soloists: a pianist and a mezzo soprano.  The program includes:

Frank Ticheli:  Sanctuary
Derek Bourgeois:  Serenade, Op. 22
George Bizet/Jan Van Duffel: “Habanera,” from Carmen
            Katherine Dalin, mezzo-soprano
Nebosa S. Macura:  Echoes of Rascia
John Philip Sousa:  Revival March
Richard Strauss:  Serenade, Op. 7
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart/DCamp:  Piano Concerto in C major, K. 503
I.               Allegro maestoso
Joan Trapp, piano
Steven Bryant:  Stampede

Initially examining the historical aspect, the works, while primarily from the twentieth century, have compositional dates ranging from 1786 (Mozart) to 2008 (Macura).  It features well-known composers from all media (Mozart, Bizet, and Strauss), the wind medium (Ticheli, Sousa, et al) as well as a young UW-Madison graduate (Macura) who took up my call to write for the wind medium.. Echoes of Rascia is a particularly evocative work based on ancient Serbian chant as well as a great deal of original material.

Variety:  The Bourgeois Serenade was originally written as a tongue in cheek wedding processional, with the joke being that the piece is written in the "unwalkable" meter of 11/8.  Once the listener gets accustomed to that oddity, the composer vaults into 13!  Surprisingly enough, every ensemble that I have ever played this work with has problems on the one "regular" bar (12/8) found near the conclusion.

Tradition:  Of course, the name of John Philip Sousa is ubiquitously associated with band concerts.  The Revival March, however, is probably one of his least known works even though it was Sousa's first published work and was premiered by none other than the Philadelphia Orchestra.  The "sweet" association with the work is my own play on words, as Sousa bases his trio strain on the old camp meeting tune, "The Sweet By and By."

Frank Ticheli
Nationalism vs. Eclectic:  Obviously, there are acknowledged European masters on the program.  But it also includes an international mix of contemporary composers as well.  Ticheli and Bryant are both extremely well known in the wind medium (and therefore will not be found in music history texts) as each has contributed in large part to the repertoire.

Does my program measure up?  I want to think so, but maybe it's a very biased assessment.  I do know that I put a great deal of time and thought into each work I decide to perform.  And how many of the works are new to my own personal repertoire?  All but two....I have to continue to learn and study as well.

About audiences: at home and away

Behavior of concert audiences has continually been a pet-peeve of mine.  As a conductor, I have suffered through:
  • Endless chatter at a symphony pops concert held at a Fairground.  The crowd was seated in the grandstand (which only added to the echo) and couldn't even shut up when I turned to address them between works on the program.  Dammit!  This is not the county fair or a demolition derby.  The same holds true for just about every concert held in a gymnasium; the crowd acts as if it is attending an athletic event.
  • Members of the audience of youth ensemble programs who leave when their child has finished performing, whether or not the concert itself is over.
  • People seated behind me yacking through an entire half of a performance: a Beethoven 1 and 9 concert.  If they didn't want to hear the first symphony and compare the exponential growth of the great composer from the beginning to the end of his symphonic output, they should have come at intermission, or stayed away completely!
What might possibly be worse is the ubiquitous standing ovation.  In my own community, and I am sure many others, people stand at the close of a performance if the ensemble manages to flatuate in tune.  Here, the standing "O" means absolutely nothing, because audiences stand for everything, not just for true excellence.  Of course, I usually stay seated and politely applaud--assuming the performance is actually good.  Many do not even reach that standard.

This is the first (and possibly last?) time that I will quote Craig's List in an S & P posting.  It is written by an audience member at a recent ballet performance in San Francisco, referring to another patron who vented his frustration to real audience members.  I wish that I had the guts to do so.

The entire posting may be found here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The great unknown

"He was lucky enough to be tall and slim: most conductors are small, so they act like sergeant-majors to compensate."  Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano

"You felt you were recreating the music when he was conducting."  An anonymous Stuttgart flautist

"He said he did not need to conduct as he would be happy driving a minicab."  Oliver Gilmour

"He has a genius for a conducting but he doesn’t enjoy it."  Herbert von Karajan

"Musically the perfect mediator between God and mankind."  Ioan Holender, Artistic Director, Vienna State Opera

Of whom do all of these people speak?  Carlos Kleiber of course.  The entire Spectator essay can be found here.

“Classical music is very, very much alive.... ”

"....But it is going to demand that people think about it creatively.”  Thus said conductor Michael Tilson Thomas as he continues to defy many current trends and attracts audiences to sometimes thorny programs offered by the San Francisco Symphony, which he has led since 1995.  The eternally youthful 66-year-old maestro is also the founder and artistic director of Miami's New World Symphony, an orchestral academy for gifted young musicians.

His modus of thinking creatively includes using, rather than eschewing the modern technologies that are a part of our daily lives.  An August article in the NY Times, seen in its entirety here, notes that Mr. Tilson Thomas believes that "today’s digital media constitute a magnificent tool for amplifying the universal messages of classical music."

He has some very good ideas that are working within his sphere of influence.  Would it be that other conductors and musical organizations might be so embracing of the world around them rather than shunning it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Words for the wise, from the wiser

I just completed reading Je suis chef d'orchestre (I am a Conductor) by Charles Munch, in its translation by Leonard Burkat (Oxford, 1955).  A brief text (the translator's introduction is 22 pp compared to the author's 91) and a seemingly quick read, I found myself re-reading several sections so that I might sufficiently soak in exactly what the maestro said and how it might be applied in my own life and career.  There are countless salient points made--too many to mention--but particularly poignant is his final paragraph:

"In the end it is the public who writes our history, who names the masterpieces and the great interpreters--and it is hard to please.  There is only one valid, certain effective way to keep its favor, to practice our art with frankness and joy and to love music more than anything else in the world."

That pretty much says it all.

Stolen from Seth Godin, via Greg Sandow

I really couldn't decide which blog to post this pithy quote upon, but as it refers to the "making" of something, it seemed to be appropriate to my frequent discussions of the making of music.

Make something worth making.

Sell something worth talking about.

Believe in what you do because you may have to do it for a long time before it catches on.

Don’t listen to the first people who give you feedback.

Don’t give up.

(Not for awhile, anyway.)

I believe that what I make (in conjunction with my many colleagues of various ages, sizes, shapes and abilities)--music--is worth making.  One caveat is necessary however:  the frustrating thing about making music is that it has vanished in an instant and the "moment" of triumph or failure, jubilation or immense sorrow is gone and we are left with only the memory.

A conductor must often be a seller of music, ideas, thoughts, and interpretations.  This can be readily apparent when one is working with older musicians.  Young players, approaching the masterworks of the repertoire (of any medium) are particularly pliable.  They have not played Beethoven's Fifth or the Holst E-flat Suite countless times and are not at all jaded.  While the "experienced" ensemble can easily master the notes, it takes physical and psychological effort to get them to believe in you.

I am fortunate that, in my career, I only conduct music that I am passionate about.  That way it is much easier for me to believe in what I do (and choose not to do.)

The first people to give us feedback may lavish immense praise or a scathing critique.  Both of these are wrong.  No more do I rush home from a performance and play the recording, immediately reliving all the moments of the concert--paying particular attention to every bit of minutia that might have been better.  Instead, I wait awhile, often months, until I return to past performances in reflection.  The same is true of commentary from others.  When I hear well after a season is finished that the ensemble members particularly enjoyed a season's repertoire, I know that their assessment is genuine.

Giving up is easy.  I have been to that precipice; I know what it feels like to consider giving up everything that I've worked so hard to create: much of which has already been taken away.  The hard part is to continue to try to forge forward in the face of adversity.  And that adversity often comes in the realization that most of the people we encounter in our daily lives do not share our worldview, our values, our individual creeds (and not necessarily of the religious kind.)  Fortunately for me I still have my insatiable love for music, from the ecstasies of Hildegard to those of Messiaen and beyond.  Because of that, and sometimes that alone, I continue on the trek.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Addressing our communal grief

As we all reflect on the tenth anniversary of the most gruesome attack on U.S. soil, orchestras, chorus and other musical organizations have held performances in remembrance of that bright and sunny Tuesday morning that so quickly turned to darkness and dread, outrage and fear.

The New York Philharmonic, which had opened its 2001 season on September 20 with Kurt Masur conducting the Brahms German Requiem, elected to commemorate the catastrophe with Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony, "Resurrection."  Free tickets were distributed, 700 of which were set aside for first responders and families of the victims.  Another 2000 seats were set up in Lincoln Center Plaza for a live video relay of the happenings in Avery Fisher Hall.

President Obama finished his own busy day on 9/11 remembrances with the Kennedy Center's "Concert For Hope," which included the Marine Chamber Orchestra, the Washington National Cathedral Choir and singers Alan Jackson, Denyce Graves and Patti LaBelle.  The President also addressed attendees at the event, originally scheduled for the National Cathedral but relocated due to complications from the recent earthquake that struck the east coast.  His complete remarks can be found here.

Closer to home, the Cedar Rapids Symphony (it's still hard for me to call them "Orchestra Iowa") devoted a small portion of its "Brucemorchestra IV" concert to the occasion, playing the "Nimrod" movement from Elgar's Enigma Variations.  The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony, joining with Red Cedar Chamber Music, the Metropolitan Chorale and Theater UNI in a presentation entitled "Remembrance 9/11; Ten Years Later.  This seemed more contemplative in nature and included works by Vaughan Williams (Toward an Unknown Region) and Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 4 "Requiem."

These are events and ceremonies that document among the most challenging times in our American history and collective psyche.  Never before have we been faced with two simultaneous conflicts (unless one wants to note the two opposing fronts of World War II) coupled with a nearly worldwide economic crisis.  Even one of these events would be the cause of national mourning, but to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is haunting to all who vividly remember exactly where they were when they first heard of the horrific events in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

A portion of Brahms's score
As a musician I am left to contemplate what music best expresses this time of national mourning.  At the death of President Roosevelt, Barber's Adagio for Strings became an unofficial expression of grief and was heard at the death of President Kennedy.  Some have used Mahler's Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, in the same way, even though this is a more a love song, written by the composer to his beloved Alma.  For me, I believe that Maestro Masur chose an appropriate vehicle for expressing this difficult time, Brahms' German Requiem.  As the composer himself noted, "As far as the text is concerned, I will admit that I would gladly give up the 'German' and simply put 'human'."  This was a very personal expression of grief for the composer who was reflecting on the passing of his musical "father," Robert Schumann, and his earthly mother, who died in 1865 and prompted Brahms addition of the fifth movement, with its lovely text:

Ye now are sorrowful;
but I will see you again,
and your hearts will rejoice,
and no one will take your joy from you.
-JOHN 16
As a mother comforts her child
so will I comfort you.
Behold with your eyes: but for a little
have I known Sorrow and labor
and found much rest. -ECCLESIASTICUS 51

This is a very personal text and a very personal expression.  Brahms chooses not to mourn the passing of his loved ones, but rather console those of us left behind, beholden in his opening chorus, "Blessed Are They That Mourn.And forever we shall....

Friday, September 9, 2011

Who says?

David Bornstein writes in a recent NY Times "Opinionator" column, "Music education hasn’t changed fundamentally since the 1970s. Students are still taught to read notation so they can recite compositions that they would never listen to on their MP3 players or play with friends. The four “streams” in music education — orchestra, chorus, marching band and jazz band — have remained constant for four decades, while a third generation is growing up listening to rock and pop music. And my experience as an eight-year-old (giving up piano lessons after a few months) is all too common. Many children quit before making progress with an instrument, then regret it as adults. Others play violin or trumpet for the school orchestra or band, then drop the instrument after graduating from high school."

While Mr. Bornstein does go on to state, "This is a loss for all. Playing music enriches life. That’s why so many adults wish that they could play an instrument, particularly guitar or piano, which are ideally suited for playing with others. The question is: Why do schools teach music in a way that turns off so many young people rather than igniting their imagination?"

The entire column can be found here.

I'll looks cool.
What Mr. Bornstein is advocating for is a program called Little Kids Rock, in which young, primarily lower income, students are furnished with guitars and taught to play popular music "not by notation, but by listening, imitation and meaningful experimentation."  Dave Wish, the founder of Little Kids Rock, says that “Making music is as much a physical act as it is a cognitive act.  We don’t begin with theory when we want to teach a child to play tee-ball. We just bring the kid up to the tee, give them a bat, and let them swing.”  Hmmm, sounds an awful lot like Suzuki method for the guitar to me (and Bornstein admits that):  show the young person a few fundamentals by rote and they go to town.

I have to argue with the author when he states, "We do a disservice to children when we force them in school to learn jazz or classical music because we think it’s good for them. Too often, rather than creating an entry point for a life of music appreciation, this approach tends to weed out those who don’t make an immediate connection with the music, or don’t have parents who force them to stick it out."  I strongly feel, and have at least anecdotal evidence to back my claim, that great music always wins out.  Students don't understand Beethoven because they've not been taught anything to "hang their hat on."  (I've given them that and have seen "problem children" leave the room singing the master's themes.)  Opera has the great barrier of language, but get over that and who can't get drawn into tales of horror, mystery, thievery and death--wildly costumed--and set to the greatest music ever known to man?

I think its wonderful and anything that gets young people passionate about anything positive is a good thing, so I am not going to knock Little Kids Rock, the Suzuki method, or any other pedagogy that turn our youth on to music.  My problem is with those who insist that "classical music" (whatever the hell that term means) is somehow irrelevant in our contemporary world.

Royal Albert Hall, selling over 5500 per concert!
Speaking of which, this just in from the BBC Proms, the annual festival of concerts held primarily at Royal Albert Hall in London.  The main evening concerts, held this year without big name ensembles such as the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, sold at an amazing 94% of capacity with 52 of 74 concerts totally sold out.  Another two million viewers tuned in on BBC2 television.  As Norman Lebrecht states, "The downside?  There isn't one."

And next year?  (Remember that the Olympics will be in London?)  Daniel Barenboim brings the West-Eastern Divan (consisting of young Egyptian, Iranian, Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian and Spanish musicians) will offer a complete Beethoven cycle at the Proms, with the Ninth Symphony to be presenting on the evening the games begin.

Somebody needs to tell these young people that Beethoven isn't relevant anymore.  I don't think they've heard.

Oh, and Mr. Borenstein, in case you haven't heard, there's this thing called the concert band.  Some call it a wind ensemble.  That which we call either one plays marches sitting down and plays bery few improv solos.  Check it out sometime....