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 Walk├╝re, 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....

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Is Levine's career finished?

Now resorts to sitting...
This just in from the Metropolitan Opera.  After continued health problems that prompted his resignation from the Boston Symphony, one has to wonder if Mr. Levine's days as a conductor are numbered.  It is unfortunate that such a storied career may have to end this way: almost akin to an aging athlete (are you reading this, Brett Favre?) who insists on coming back for one more season.  I can only recall the shock to the music world when Beverly Sills announced her retirement from singing, seemingly still at the top of her game.  Of course, she put her magical skills to work on the other side of the proscenium, guiding the New York City Opera, Lincoln Center itself and then the Met (assuming its chairmanship at age 73).  But such a fate is usually not seen in the conductor's craft; one usually simply fades away from the limelight....

May your recovery be a quick one, Maestro.

The Dark Side of the Orchestra

 Is it really this bad?

When one attends an orchestra concert, he/she sees a group of individuals all dressed in 19th century evening attire led by some guy with a short stick waving (usually) his arms in often-wild patterns which allegedly communicate his conception of the music to the assembly in front of him.  That is the average concert-goers knowledge of what happens.

The web site Cracked usually has a humorous take on issues that face our daily lives and, in fact, often prints the truth (with more than a few expletives thrown in for good measure).  Still, it is important to note, when examining the oddities of the contemporary orchestra, the following:

  • Performance-enhancing drugs are rampant.  While heavy metal musicians are popping whatever comes into their hands, orchestral musicians are often seen taking prescription beta blockers.
  • Playing is dangerous.  Hearing loss, carpal tunnel-like syndromes and other muscular conditions are just a few of the examples.
  • Orchestras are notoriously sexist.  The Vienna Philharmonic.  Need anything more be said?
  • There's no money in it.  The Philadelphia Orchestra.  Need anything more be said about that?  OK, the Syracuse Symphony, the Louisville Orchestra, etc.
  • It's kind of a horrible job.  I'll let readers sort this one out for themselves.
The entire piece can be found here.  Here is fair warning that there exist more than a few f-bombs.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Miraculous music?

I think it might even put a smile on this old guy's face just to know, over 250 years after his death, that he is still highly relevant

The sound of a ball, a long wooden xylophone, and gravity = Bach.  Does it get any better than that?  Hand it to the Japanese and the beautiful countryside near Kyushu...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Why I am a conductor....

Charles Munch (1891-1968)
Recently, thanks to an updating of the Conductors Guild bibliography, so expertly prepared by Jonathan Green, as well as my favorite rare and used books website ( I have obtained three books write by or about conductors I have long admired.  These are I am a Conductor, by Charles Munch (translated by Leonard Burkat, 1955); Wilhelm Furtwangler's Concerning Music (translated by J. L. Lawrence, 1953) and Michael Charry's new George Szell: A Life of Music (2011).  I started my reading with the Munch and his words have reminded me why I share his profession, although I would never compare myself to his consummate artistry.

How many thousands of things about conducting they (the public) were unaware of.  That it is not a profession at all but a sacred calling, sometimes a priesthood, and often even a disease--a disease from which the only escape is death.  That fifteen years of work and study do not make a conductor of a man if he is not possessed by an inner exaltation, an all-consuming flame, and a magnetism that can bewitch both the musicians of his orchestra and the audience come to hear his music-making....

You perch on a pedestal in the middle of a battlefield.  You are Saint Sebastian exposed to the Roman arrows.  You are Joan of Arc ready to burn at the stake for what you love.  If even after forty years of conducting you are still struck to the heart before every concert by fear and panic that overwhelm you with the strength of a tidal wave, if you feel this formidable transport of anguish still more intensely each time, you are still making progress and every time you conduct you will understand your mission a little better....

I believe that every human being endowed with intelligence, memory, and strength of character bears within him a little of the supernatural as well.  The highest purpose of the conductor is to release this superhuman potential in every one of his musicians.  The rest is corollary, indispensable certainly, but only enough to make a professional conductor--not the combined servant and eloquent lover that music demands....

Music is an art that expresses the inexpressible.  It rises far above what words can mean or the intelligence define.  Its domain is the imponderable and impalpable land of the unconscious.  Man's right to speak this language is for me the most precious gift that has been bestowed upon us.  And we have no right to abuse it....

Let no one be astonished then that I consider my work a priesthood, not a profession.  IT is not too strong a word.  And like all sacred callings, that of the conductor suppose a total self-renunciation and a profound humility.

And here is the man in action.