Thursday, December 13, 2012

Thursday Thoughts

The $50 million lobby for a locked-out orchestra
In the outside world:  the music has died in the Twin Cities...

Orchestras here and abroad remain on the brink.  Both the the mighty (I insist) Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra have locked out their players due to financial issues all while the former spends $50 million on a new lobby for Orchestra Hall.  Drew McManus has written extensively in his Adaptistration blog about the mess, including a down to the word analysis of the proposed master agreement (the red line version).  Recently Bill Eddins, in his Sticks and Drones, has offered his final words on the matter.

To the Minnesota Orchestra Association (management), he states that they must reverse their current path and,
  1. Fire the Executive Director and immediately re-open negotiations with the musicians with the help of an independent arbitrator; or
  2. Resign en masse.
To the players of the Minnesota Orchestra, he offers,

If neither of the above actions happen then I fear that your careers as true artists with this particular organization are over. Those of you who can leave, leave, whether by retirement, audition, or whatever other method is open to you. There may still be a paycheck here at the M.O. but there is little doubt in my mind that it would be soul-sucking.

To music director Osmo Vanska:

....if the board does not do a volta-face then the only way for you to keep your artistic honor is to resign as Music Director of this orchestra. There will certainly be nothing left for you here but an utterly demoralized collection of unhappy and disgruntled people looking for a way out. Your artistic vision will always be 2nd place to the smooth functioning of the “corporation.” You have no need to be a part of this. You are better than this.

(Eddins is Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and a former assistant conductor with the Chicago Symphony.  He is currently a resident of the Twin Cities.)

* * * * * * * * * *

Robert and Clara
Norman Lebrecht has reviewed Martin Geck's new biography of Robert Schumann in the Wall Street Journal.  His comments can be found here.

Who couldn't be drawn to a text described thus?

The marriage produced eight children and a fresh set of romantic stereotypes—of a couple united in tender devotion and tempestuous passion. No musical marriage is so exhaustively chronicled. The Schumanns kept a joint diary with alternate entries, marking with an f-like symbol the nights they made love. The diaries were written to be read by posterity.

* * * * * * * * * * 

Closer to home and around the dinner table on Sunday evening...

Following an extremely successful (in terms of both quality and size of audience--our largest in six years!) Quad City Wind Ensemble concert, many of us gathered for a post-performance meal.  Discussion eventually turned toward local musical matters, including the operations of several of the area's regional orchestras.  Two of the ensembles in question appear to be cramming their rehearsal and performance schedules into fewer days, causing more than a bit of angst from the players.  The management/music directors from these ensembles refuse to accept that both orchestras glean musicians from the same pool.  Whenever someone is not available (because of a service with the other), the orchestra simply hires someone else on the sub list.  The end result is an orchestra that never has the same players (and it's not even close) from concert to concert.

One of the music directors maintains a permanent residence far from the orchestra's base and seems to be using his home (and the musicians around it) as a potential pool for additional players.  Of course, one must take into account the amount of money the orchestra is paying for mileage (I don't know the distance, but can vouch that it is more than a six-hour drive!) rather than staying closer to home.  And this from an orchestra that was unhappy with its previous Music Director because he lived less than three hours away!  I don't understand....maybe I'm not supposed to.

* * * * * * * * * *

The funding is in from (I can't recall whom) and we are proceeding with plans for our "all women composers" QCWE concert on March 3.  The program will include the following:

Ann McGinty:  To Keep Thine Honor Bright 
Jennifer Higdon:  Oboe Concerto, featuring our outstanding principal oboe, Mark Fitkin

Nancy Galbraith: Danza de los Duendes 

Tania Leon:  Alegre 

Shelley Hanson: Dances with Winds
I.               Gaida
II.             Irish Star
III.           Serbian Dance

Julie Giroux:  Vigils Keep

I remain continually excited about the prospects for this concert as well as our April closer, a tribute to the "greatest generation" of wind band composers.  Stay tuned for more information as the days draw nigh.

* * * * * * * * * *

That's enough thinking for one Thursday.  I have orchestra parts to bow.

Monday, November 19, 2012

My Musical Moments

Arthur Rubenstein
Arts critic Anthony Tomassini (he of the infamous list of greatest composers) has begun a new series in the New York Times, found here.  In it he discusses (in print and with a continuing video) those musical moments forever etched in his mind and heart.  His first example is a brief phrase in Chopin's G-minor Ballade (as performed on LP by Arthur Rubenstein):

"The ballade opened with a forceful line that began in the low register of the piano and rose up the keyboard in octaves, as if making some grim declaration. At the peak of the ascent the line twisted into a soft plaintive turn, delivered in two halting phrases.

Then something stunning happened, just for a moment: a short gesture, a softly sighing three-note melodic fragment landing on a dissonant-seeming chord that at first sounded as if it were wrong. Yet the harmony lingered, and the pungency of the clashing notes was strangely beautiful, almost comforting. This led into what seemed the saddest melody I had ever heard. The main business of the ballade had started.

I remember how powerfully I reacted to that moment with the sighing phrase. I still get shivers when I hear it or play it."

Tomassini goes on to state (and I completely agree) that these moments do not have to be viscerally thrilling or climactic.  In fact, it might very well be the absence of these factors that more completely imprints in our psyche.

For me, I can never forget the first time I ever heard Guiseppe Giordani's Caro Mio Ben.  Of course, it had yet to become a kind of classical "top 40" hit then.  I remember the performance as if it was yesterday, sung in our old choir room at Grand Ledge High School.  I fell in love with that singer that day.  I never told her of it, even though we did date for a little while our junior year.  I acted like an idiot; she found another and they're still very happily married today.

But from my own conducting experiences I can recount at least two moments that, for me, are monumental musical moments.

Gustav Holst's E-flat Suite (Op. 28a) is one of the cornerstones of the band literature.  There remains a fair amount of debate in the wind world about which of his two suites is better.  I believe that the E-flat is, due in no small part to the composer's manipulation of a tiny motive in structuring the themes in each of the three movements.  In the third movement, the opening theme of the march and the tune of the trio come together in astounding counterpoint.  At measure 130, I conduct the passage differently than almost any other performance I've heard, allowing the "Land of Hope and Glory" tune to shine through without a break in the phrase.  I've led the work dozens of times (at least) but this moment gives me shivers--and sometimes before the fact.

My other "moment" (at least for today) is from Richard Strauss's Serenade, Op. 7.  At m. 71, he writes an awe-inspiring climactic phrase to begin to close off the work's exposition.  The kicker is that he employs only seven of his thirteen instruments:  four horns, two bassoons, and contrabassoon.  The combination of sounds cannot be described....

Perhaps I will write as Tomassini has and make this a continuing series.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A view of the forest....

Everyone involved in making art for a living (or as an avocation) needs to read this piece by Henry Peyrebrune that just appeared in Drew McManus' Adaptistration blog.  I have never read a more convincing argument for what we do, how we do it, and why it is vital to humanity.  Read here; you'll be glad you did. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

It's going to come crashing down....

Indianapolis--locked out.  No apparent end in sight.

Atlanta--locked out.  Musicians cave on $5.2 million in concessions.

Minneapolis--locked out.  Management unwilling to talk.  On a much better note, former conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski will lead members of the orchestra in an October 16 (the original starting date for the new season) concert, to be held at the Convention Center.

Richmond--players reject management's offer (7% wage cut).  Players continue to perform.

Jacksonville--on the brink.  Musicians continue season on a "play and talk" basis.

Mitt Romney--threatens assassination of Big Bird.

A recent story in the Chicago Tribune reports that the vaulted CSO--coming off a "micro strike" by its players--may be in for financial troubles down the road.  The organization is apparently carrying a large debt load, due to the 1997 renovation of the Symphony Center, combined with operating deficits that are expected to reach over one million dollars this year.  Lest this outstanding organization be forced to go the way of the orchestras in Detroit (which will take years to recover from horrible management decisions related to facilities) or Philadelphia (crawling out from under Chapter 11 bankruptcy), the time is now for management to take hold of runaway expenditures.

There's much more, but--to say the least--our culture is in big trouble....

Friday, September 21, 2012

The domino effect

The facts are hard and chilling but point to the fact that classical music--and the organizations that present it--are in dire straits.  While this calamity has been predicted before (see Time magazine, 1969), this time it is for real.  Some of the victims include the orchestras, musicians and--most of all--the communities served by:

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra:  musicians locked out; concerts cancelled.  This was after the musicians agreed to a 11% pay cut.

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra:  ibid, after musicians agreed to a temporary extension of the current contract in order to avoid canceling concerts.

In Minnesota:

Minnesota Orchestra:  Running nearly $4 million deficit; announced 28% pay cut for musicians while engaged in a $50 million renovation of the lobby areas of Orchestra Hall.
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra:  In a "significant stretch" for the organization, has offered players a two-tiered system of minimum salaries resulting in a 15% pay reduction.

San Antonio Symphony:  no approved budget, no contract with its musicians and no date set to come up with a new plan.

AND, Boston is still without a music director.

AND, Philadelphia is crawling out of bankruptcy proceedings that benefitted few but the attorneys.


In Louisville, things still appear tense, but the show is going on.

Detroit Symphony: recovering from a six-month-long strike two years ago, has hired a new concertmaster, lured a principal flutist away from the "Dude's" LA Phil, and filled a number of the gaps brought about by musicians' exoduses.

The New Mexico Philharmonic has risen from the ashes of the bankrupt New Mexico Symphony.

The Hawaii Symphony (formerly the Honolulu Symphony) has no current program information on its website.

The Syracuse (NY) Symphony is dead, but former members of that organization (down to 40 players of the original 61) are attempting to revive an ensemble under the name Symphony Syracuse.  They face an uphill battle.

JUST IN FROM THE JACKSONVILLE (FL) SYMPHONY:  The Board has declared an impasse and will impose the stipulations of their most recent contract offer, which include a base salary decrease of 20% and a 45% decrease in health insurance coverage--in addition to a season that is four weeks shorter.

Sean Andrew Chen writes in the Next American City that the fate of the contemporary symphony orchestra may be tied to the community it serves:

Is it possible that the fate of our orchestras is tied more to the fate of our cities than to the preferences of our ears? While some cities have come back from the brink, bringing with them great orchestras like the New York Philharmonic (and raising new ones like the Los Angeles Philharmonic), smaller, regional cities have been left struggling along with their orchestras. And to survive, orchestras like Philadelphia’s will have to not only keep their heads above water, but reinvent themselves just as recovering cities have done.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A program of 20th century chamber pieces sells out!

Waterloo Elks Lodge
Some people are aware that I am the program annotator for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Symphony Orchestra.  Therefore it may be inappropriate to place my imprimatur on the orchestra's programming as the most original and/or exciting in my immediate vicinity.  However, a writer is entitled to his opinions, but I will offer these few words with a grain of salt; I am an employee--albeit a very minor one--of the organization.  While they pay me for my research and literary knowledge, that is the end of it.

I usually complete the full season's set of notes in one sitting over the summer months, but that didn't happen this year.  So harm done; my first deadline arrived and I delivered on time.  (I am currently finished with the fall in toto and about 30% finished for the spring; once I get working on these projects, I get more than a bit of tunnel vision and simply want to get it done so I do not have to think of it anymore.)  But as I was preparing the copy for the November concert, I really became enthralled with the program.  It includes:

  • Walter Piston:  Divertimento:  written in 1946 for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, string quartet, and contrabass, this piece marks Piston's departure from his earlier works.  Joseph Stevenson writes,  “It is not a change of style or technique; the music remains contrapuntal and chromatic. It is a question of tone and mood: There is more optimism, less cynicism.”
  • John Harbison:  North and South, a six-song cycle based on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979).  The author herself had wished that someone would set her poetry to music and Harbison has done an amazing job, crafting six evocative poems into a set written for the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
  • Morton Gould:  Benny's Gig, a set of duos for clarinet and double bass, written for the legendary Benny Goodman.
  • Bohuslav Martinu:  the wacky ballet score, Le Revue de Cuisine.
  • Samuel Barber's popular (and rightly so) Knoxville, Summer of 1915, written on a commission from soprano Eleanor Steber (performer of the title role in the 1958 Met production of Barber’s Vanessa) who premiered it in 1948, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky. Barber’s compositional imagery has been described as rhapsodic as the music is such a poignant accompaniment to the text.
Now comes the hard part.  The concert, slated for November 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Waterloo Elks Lodge 290, is sold out.  Even I can't get in!

Monday, August 27, 2012

The jewel of St. Paul loses its luster

America's only full-time chamber orchestra joins the seemingly-unending list of ensembles teetering on the brink of disaster.  This from a member of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.  I live in a community that has outsourced for its musicians, resulting--interestingly enough--in huge increases in musician costs primarily due to mileage (it's a long way to Tipperary, or Chicago for that matter).  On the other hand, the salary cuts proposed by management will surely end the SPCO as anyone knows it.

And here is the latest new from Atlanta.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Not again, Mitt

Artists support these guys?  Tell me you're kidding.
Whenever I read of a colleague supporting the Romney/Ryan candidacies, I honestly have to shudder.  Mr. Romney, who once urged Washington to let Detroit (the largest city in his home state) "go bankrupt," has recently indicated that, among his first initiatives, he would dissolve the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and other governmental-supported cultural entities.  Of course, this is from the guy who tied his dog to the top of the car and just recently, shared a poorly timed "birther" joke with a crowd in Michigan.

The miniscule amount dedicated to the NEA (somewhere in the neighborhood of $155 million--compare that to our defense budget of $711 BILLION) would have no impact on the budget deficit.  None.  In the world of trillion-dollar budgets, $155 million is chump change.  It may not seem that way to people living on, say, $50 thousand, but everything is relative.

However, the negative impact of these cuts would be dire:  kiss good-bye to all but the most well-heeled symphonies (and there is no guarantee there), opera companies, museums, state arts councils, etc.  All would vanish, and our nation would be much poorer for it.

A most interesting commentary on the nature of our democracy was penned by H. L. Mencken in his Notes on Democrary, published in 1926.  A contemporary review appears here.  A most interesting examination of Mencken's time and a reflection upon ours.

As for support for the arts, I'll still go with the guy who can belt out a mean Sweet Home Chicago as opposed to the other guy who attempts to croon an off-key America the Beautiful.

Trouble down south

No one seems to know what is happening with pending contract negotiations with the Atlanta Symphony, which is in the throes of a $20 million accumulated deficit.  Of course the management is asking near-Draconian concessions from the musicians, who have responded in kind with a conciliatory counter-proposal.  Management spoke of a potential lock-out if no agreement was reached by today.  And still no news in the local press.  More from Drew McManus here.

It has also been reported that the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony have been attempting to negotiate their agreement, which expired in 2011.  The musicians made a contract offer in April and have heard nothing from management about the matter.  The current agreement, which was just an extension of the 2007-11 contract, expires August 31.  While it seems as though the musicians have acted in extreme good faith, they've been offered at best, double-talk and at worst, silence.  One has to hope that the silence does not extend into their concert season, which begins October 2.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A forgotten birthday?

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy.  Surprised?  Most of the musical world is, or else is simply ignoring it.  One has to wonder why; he is certainly among my favorite composers, given his innovations in rhythm, harmony, and--in particular--his amazing pallet of sound.

But, as Anthony Tommasini notes, he is difficult to categorize, probably because his own sound world (and lifetime) includes, at times, influences of Wagner, Satie, and even Stravinsky.  But was he an impressionist?  (His New Grove article insists not.)  Is he a symbolist?  That argument could be made, but not necessarily of his entire output.  I find such arguments moot; judge the music on the basis of its inherent merit, not on some pigeonholing category, i.e. (the age-old question) was Beethoven a Classicist or a Romantic?  Easy answer:  "Yes!"

For more reading, check out Tommasini's entire article here, and then pop La Mer into your CD player (yes, I still have one of those), sit back, and be awestruck at the sound.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Some good news for a change

The Delaware Symhony
The Delaware Symphony, which had earlier cancelled its entire 2012-13 season, is apparently climbing back from the abyss.  Through a massive re-shuffling of the Board of Directors and the efforts of its conductor and a new executive director, there may be music in America's first state after all.  Read more here.

Meanwhile, I was talking with Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony conductor and CEO, Jason Weinberger--who is also the former resident conductor of the Louisville Orchestra--during the past few weeks.  The LO and the musicians' union finally reached an agreement in early July, ending a lock-out that commenced in May 2011.  The orchestra, which has been on the brink off and on for decades, has also been among the most progressive in the nation in terms of programing.  The orchestra's website notes that, "In 1953, the Orchestra received a Rockefeller grant of $500,000 to commission, record and premiere 20th century music by living composers, effectively placing the Louisville Orchestra on the international circuit and securing an invitation to perform at Carnegie Hall."  The community must be grateful to have its orchestra return for its 75th Anniversary Season (and Maestro Weinberger will return to lead several performances).

Symphonic music returned to America's newest state in the form of the Hawaii Symphony, which picked up after the 2010 demise of the Honolulu Symphony.  With JoAnn Falletta heading up as artistic advisor, great things will be happening on the island of Oahu.  For more information on the orchestra's Spring 2012 highlights, see here.

And yet, these bright spots still fail to make up for the endemic problem facing symphonic music as well as the entire world of "classical" music.  I can only point to Greg Sandow's blog, which has been examining this situation for quite some time and recently has been focusing on classical music's need to find a new audience.  (See Greg's blog here.)  The old models are definitely not working anymore, due to a variety of factors, not the least of which has been the elimination of school music programs.  That being said, we need to create a new dynamic--a new brand if you will--to bring this new audience into our concert halls (or maybe throw convention to the wind and bring the concert halls to the new audience!)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

From a Hungarian's mouth

Ivan Fischer--we can learn a lot from him...

It seems almost ironic that Norman Lebrecht's latest interview would be with Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer--especially in light of my posting about the impact that country's musicians and conductors have had on our own cultural development.

There are many interesting insights here, both on the state of things in his own country, as well as what Fischer sees as the "dinosaur" of the American orchestra and its system of governance, operations, etc.  The podcast can be found here.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The end of summer

In the spring of 1995 several area musicians approached me with the concept of starting a community band in the Tri State area.  Organizations such as the Dubuque Wind Ensemble (an outgrowth of the Tri-College band) and the Dubuque Community Band had long since lay dormant and our city remained the largest Iowa municipality without a community wind organization.  On May 9, the band was "born," with a total compliment of 15 players, nine of whom were clarinet players!  Within a month, our numbers had grown to about 35, and we presented our first concert on June 15 at the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.  Music on that program included compositions by Gustav Holst, Richard Wagner, marches (including a snappy little Hungarian number), and two show tune medleys.  Two weeks hence, we moved to Dubuque's beautiful Eagle Point Park Bandshell and have been presenting our summer concert seasons there ever since.

Over the years, as the band has grown, we have taken the show on the road, offering concerts at Sinsinawa Mound, Cascade, Bettendorf, and a performance (with Maquoketa's Timber City Band) at the 2001 Iowa Municipal Band Festival in Boone.  That same year the ensemble performed as part of the community's Independence Day celebration with a concert at the Hawthorne Street Boat Landing and aired on Radio Dubuque.  Still, we have not strayed far from our roots:  offering the best and most varied programs to the community by musicians of the community.  The Tri-State Wind Symphony has been and will always remain Dubuque's Municipal Band!

For many years we counted on the largesse of Loras College for the use of rehearsal facilities, equipment and an extensive library of fine wind music.  But in the winter of 2008, following my departure from the Loras faculty, we were nearly forced to "fold up the tents."  But, thanks in no small part to the hard work of our Board of Directors and support of the community, the show went on.  Westminster Presbyterian Church offered us a rehearsal space in their large (and air-conditioned!) fellowship hall, as well as a rain site in the church's sanctuary.  That would prove more than beneficial as that summer brought about rains and major flooding throughout the state of Iowa.  We were only able to present two concerts out of doors that summer!  Our deepest thanks is also offered to both the University of Dubuque and Dubuque Senior High School for loan of equipment and other needs.  Since that time, through the efforts of our grant writer extraordinaire, Jean Cheever, and many others, the ensemble has now obtained most of our needed percussion equipment and increases to our music library, all of which are stored at Westminster during the off-season.

We are now approaching the conclusion of our eighteenth season of music-making.  As is our tradition, the final concert consists of the player's (and audience) favorites, culled from the repertoire offered from the current season.  I am always amazed that the cumulative program demonstrates a truly varied (and usually outstanding) mix of the best music from the season.  It also warms my heart that the concert includes at least one selection from every one of our summer programs.  This year's final concert includes:

John Philip Sousa:  Fairest of the Fair, with little doubt, the master's prettiest march.
Gustav Holst:  Suite in F (No. 2), a significant work of the band repertoire and the top vote-getter in this year's balloting.
Warren Barker:  The Magic of Andrew Lloyd Webber, a wonderful medley that includes music from Jesus Christ, Superstar; Evita, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera.
Frank Ticheli's lovely setting of Amazing Grace.
Jay Bocook's finely crafted medley from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (I live for the ending!)
Leroy Anderson's adorable Blue Tango.
John Higgins' Broadway Spectacular, including older hits from Hello Dolly, Chorus Line, and several others.
Rushmore, Alfred Reed's moving setting of America, the Beautiful.
Yet another Sousa march--was there any doubt?  Stars and Stripes Forever.
Charles Wiley:  Old Scottish Melody, our traditional season closer and an absolutely gorgeous setting of Auld Lang Syne. 

We bid the summer adieu on Thursday, July 26 at 7:30 p.m.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A really good gig (if you can get it.)

Drew McManus, author of the Adaptistration blog, makes life easy for many of us as he goes through the IRS 990 reports filed by American orchestras and sorts out the compensation received by music directors, executives, concertmasters, etc.  Although I've included a few of these in past postings, here's the top ten:

  1. Philadelphia Orchestra: $1,827,801
  2. San Francisco Symphony: $1,801,627
  3. Boston Symphony: $1,321,779
  4. Dallas Symphony: $1,113,134
  5. New York Philharmonic: $1,082,277
  6. Cleveland Orchestra: $1,075,204
  7. Minnesota Orchestra: $1,035,622
  8. Saint Louis Symphony: $954,392
  9. Seattle Symphony: $699,048
  10. Baltimore Symphony: $685,812
That seems like a huge jump between no.s 8 and 9, but I still think I could live on 700K, even in Seattle!

A more complete report, plus a lot more information on orchestra administration and the state of our art can be found at

* * * * * * * * * *

Meanwhile, the Boston Symphony is still sans conductor as no replacement has yet been named for James Levine, who announced his retirement in March 2011. The orchestra just presented its first Tanglewood medal, a "new tradition" presented to Seiji Ozawa for “his myriad contributions to the B.S.O.’s performance, touring and recording activities.” (Please, someone, give me a break! Greater than the legion of great conductors that have called Boston "home.")  James R. Oestreich writes in the same NY Times article mentions Andris Nelsons as one of the BSO's potential suitors although he has yet to lead the band in a subscription performance.

The question remains: how long can the BSO continue on without a Music Director to lead the orchestra forward.  Levine got off to a good start, burnishing the BSO sound from the too-long years (25 to be exact) of a conductor who basically went through the motions.

All of that being said, I'm still available.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Practice Myth

I can recall all-too-often the number of student musicians who would plant themselves in a practice room for four, five, or even six hours per day.  Many of these same students--fashioning themselves as the next Joshua Bell or Yo-Yo Ma--often complained of large ensemble requirements as they would rather spend their precious time practicing their concertos or rehearsing with chamber groups.

My answer to the latter group:  sorry kids, you're not going to be the next Bell, Ma, Stoltzman, or whatever great player of your chosen instrument.  The reason?  Simply put, you'd have to be a student at one of three schools: Eastman, Julliard, Curtis, to have a prayer.  AND, you ought to be glad to have as good an ensemble as you have to learn the repertoire with, AND you need to be thankful for the presence of a better-than-average regional orchestra that you might be lucky enough to perform with.  There are an extremely limited number of seats available in all the orchestras in the country--big, small or otherwise--and this is probably as good as it gets.

As for those endless hours of practice? Most of you are wasting several hours/day. In a January 25, 2012 article in Time, author Annie Murphy Paul notes that one must practice "deliberately". "The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately — whether it’s a foreign language, a musical instrument or any other new skill — you might as well not practice at all."

She cites cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson's 1993 paper that seems to finally be making the rounds. Paul goes on to summarize Ericsson's work, "Long hours of practice are not enough. And noodling around on the piano or idly taking some swings with a golf club is definitely not enough. “Deliberate practice,” Ericsson declares sternly, “requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.” Having given us fair warning, he reveals the secret of deliberate practice: relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. Results are carefully monitored, ideally with the help of a coach or teacher, and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation."  More of Ms. Paul's article can be found here.

I have noticed just the opposite to be true of some of my students, colleagues and even my daughter. It is as if all have the mindset that, if they just play a passage (or a piece) enough times, it will magically become music. Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth. We need to teach students how to practice, how to examine their own performance and correct errors in search of the end goal. It is only then that their practice might--just might--get them to Carnegie Hall.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Can there be more bad news? And then some...

After reading of the continuing financial debacles in the orchestras of Philadelphia and Detroit, I've done a little more combing through the 990 forms submitted to the IRS.  (These can be found at, a very handy tool to check out how one's local non-profits are doing.)

The venerable Boston Symphony:

Deficit:  $10.3 million on revenue of $73.7 million (down from over 100M in previous year.)
            CEO: Mark Volpe: 545K + 57.6K in what I assume are benefits
            Concertmaster: Malcolm Lowe: 428.8K + 40.8 K
            Conductor: James Levine: 1.32 million:  this is what was paid to his management firm.  Confirmation of any reimbursement for numerous conducting cancellations is not stated.

The equally venerable Cleveland Orchestra:

            Deficit: $5.2 million on revenue of 40 million
            CEO: Gary Hansen:  401K + 59K
            Concertmaster: William Preucil 408K + 25.5K
            Conductor: Franz Welcher-Most: 1.07 million

On top of this the Delaware Symphony has suspended its operations for the 2012-13 season, thus sidelining OperaDelaware and the First State Bank Ballet Theater.  The major problem in Wilmington appears to be a board that depended heavily on withdrawals from the orchestra's endowment to balance the books.  The result?  The organization has $16,000 in assets with an impending $850,000 deficit for the (now cancelled) upcoming season.  Methinks heads will roll...

And to complete the Trifecta, news has it from the Twin Cities that the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will cease to be the only full-time ensemble of its kind in the U.S.

Still, Greg Sandow continues to hold out hope....

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Why are orchestras in trouble? (the financial side of things...)

I have previously written of the plight of many of our nation's orchestras, including both smaller, regional ensembles as well as the "too big to fail" (see the continuing plight of the Philadelphia Orchestra).  Given the proliferation of the availability of financial information, it is now possible to examine all of these ensembles with closer scrutiny.

Orchestra Hall, Detroit--6M refurbish
The myriad problems of the Detroit Symphony remain a prime example of nearly everything gone wrong.  Orchestra management decides, in the early 2000's to build a major addition to historic Orchestra Hall, to which the DSO had relocated in 1989 (deserting the horrendous--and now demolished--Ford Auditorium).  The cost of the project? $60 million. Amount raised? $60 million. What's the problem? Management decides to invest the endowed funds instead of paying the bill. Economy tanks and the musicians are left holding the bill, subsequently agreeing to salary freezes amidst negotiations of a new master agreement.

"The Max"--60M boondoggle
Management proposes a 27% salary decrease; musicians counter with 24. Management counters that offer with 33%!!!!!! Over six month long strike ensues; many of the orchestra's most prominent musicians leave the DSO for greener pastures (as if that could be difficult).  The end result (the strike ended in April 2011)  left the orchestra's personnel depleted (74 full-time players, down from 96 and seven below the contractual mandated 81), salaries slashed (the orchestra's pay scale currently ranks somewhere between 17th and 20th place among the orchestras in the U.S.) and a continuing mountain of debt.  A report from the musicians of the DSO can be found here.

The most recent financial report filed to the IRS notes a $15 million deficit, despite the sacrifices of the musicians--the people that patrons pay to hear.  On top of this, DSO CEO Anne Parsons, who has presided over this folly, received nearly $300,000 in compensation and benefits.  An additional endowment provides Ms. Parsons with free housing and "social club dues" to the tune of another $76,000! On the flip side, the base salary of Music Director Leonard Slatkin is a mere $165,000.  In these days of skyrocketing conductor salaries, he is a bargain on the level of Sam's Club.

Note that amidst all of this dire news, the Detroit metro area ranks ninth nationally in the number of millionaires. Methinks there are a lot of potential patrons to help dig the DSO out of this mess, but it is going to take action on a grand scale and undoubtedly with new management--a completely clean slate--in place.

How many other orchestras have suffered from a gross mismanagement of the budget? Well, we could start with Philadelphia...

Monday, May 21, 2012

Not only in Dubuque...

"A standing ovation is a form of applause where members of a seated audience stand up while applauding after extraordinary performances of particularly high acclaim." (Wikipedia)

"Some might say that the standing ovation has come to be devalued..."   (Ibid)

Since moving to Dubuque nearly 20 years ago, I have noticed the pandemic increase of  the standing ovation.  It has gotten to the point  that my own daughter is almost embarrassed to attend any kind of public performance with me, as  I do not immediately leap to my feet to honor what I may--or may not have--seen or heard on the stage.  Here it has definitely gotten to the point that the  "s.o." is  an expected  part of the evening's festivities, as audiences regularly stand for elementary band concerts, middle school musicals (with which  I have a basic educational problem) and countless other events.  As long as there is  not a major   collapse on stage, the s.o. appears.

Of course this suffices to dilute acknowledgement of the truly exceptional and is now a phenomena not limited to Dubuque--or the Midwest for that matter.  Read here for a  discussion of the matter in NY.

As a performer, do I appreciate applause?  Of  course.  As for the s.o.?  I'll take it  when it is   truly earned.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Tear-jerking in triplicate...

Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, whose amazing voice I equated with how a baritone should sing, died today at his home in Bavaria.  One has to consider who of his generation could sing such a wide repertoire--ranging from much of the significant lieder in any language to Wagner (he sang in the first LP recording of the Ring with Solti, the Vienna Phil and the greatest singers of thelate 50s and early 60s.

This afternoon, my "friends" at IPR just  had to play a recording of Fischer-Diskau singing the Ruckert-lieder of Gustav Mahler (who, himself died 101 years ago to the day). The pianist?  Leonard Bernstein...what a line-up of talent...what a sad day for singers everywhere...

Friday, May 11, 2012


I am sitting in the lobby of the Des Moines Marriott having attended all but the last morning of the Iowa Bandmasters (don't you hate that term?) Conference. It used to be called a convention, but they changed the name to conference so that school administrators wouldn't think of it as a drunken brawl.  Some of the attendees never got the word.

It has been a rejuvenating time of clinics, concerts, and conversations--with a few close friends as well as a  number of people I have not seen in too long.   While I found nearly every concert enjoyable to some extent, this evening's performance will not be counted among them.   Band X is a fine ensemble, nearly as good as any in the state.  So the problem was not in the band, it was in the program.  I listened to the first three works on the concert and left--fortuitously, as I ran into a colleague in the lobby and we went out for a coffee.

The problem with the program (I like the way that sounds) was that I could not make any sense of the music I was listening to.  Although the printed document contained descriptive program notes, I felt that one could have called the pieces just about anything and had the same effect on the audience. In short these were compositions that left one thinking, huh?  Why? What prompted the composer to write such strident, bombastic "music." I was actually developing gastric distress at the sounds I was being subjected to.

Sometimes I think I'm getting old and set in my ways, but dammit, I hadn't purchased a ticket so I felt no guilt in walking out, even though I knew that pleasant experiences awaited me within two of the remaining four pieces.  I just couldn't take any more of it.

Guess it's easy to understand why I won't name the ensemble....

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Berlin Phil at Carnegie Hall
In a response to my probably all too often tirades about American orchestras and the repertoire they present (here and abroad), I created the "Huey" Awards, acknowledging creative and progressive programing in Eastern Iowa orchestras.  The original posting can be found here, but I'll remind readers (if there are any) that there was no winner during the 2011-12 season.  While an orchestra did include one program of significance (the QCSO's War Requiem), the sum total of every orchestra's season was seriously lacking.

As I wrote last summer:

The "Hughes awards" are totally arbitrary, based upon my own criteria which include possible thematic content, inclusion of both contemporary and American composers and overall creativity and originality.  The latter would imply programs that step out of the Overture - Concerto - Symphony box.  Also of important note is the presentation of works outside the standard repertory; i.e. why offer yet another performance of Dvorak 7 (or 8 or 9) or Shostakovich 5--regardless of my own love for those works--when there are hundreds of neglected works that may be favored by audiences (and surely the players).  Do we need yet another performance of Beethoven 5 instead of say, the Bizet Symphonie?  Or what about the Franck--long a staple of the repertoire that now seems to be rarely played?  I could make a long list of neglected works and that's just the works of the "masters."

It is incumbent upon the modern day symphony to be a proponent of the music of our time BECAUSE that is the heritage of the medium.  It was not until the mid to late nineteenth century that works of the past started to form any kind of "repertory."  In the time of Mozart and Haydn, people were "discovering" the works of Bach and Handel as if they'd been composed in another millennium, rather than some one hundred years previous.  In Mozart's time (and Beethoven's and many other's) the music presented on a concert program had to be new.  There were no "interpreters" of the music of the past; most performers were led by the composers themselves.  But, somewhere along the way (the early twentieth century and the rise of serialism?) the audience became disconnected from the music of its time.  If we are to remain viable, we must espouse the changing milieu in which we live.

I was attempting to make this case with my daughter just yesterday, telling her that there was a time when all that a concert-going public would hear was "new" music (and using my own descriptions above).  I had to convince her (try reasoning with an eleven-year-old!) that there is, in fact, new music being written for the same kinds of concerts as those from hundreds of years ago.  The fact that I have personally conducted 15 premieres during the past 14 years is evidence of this.  But there are certainly many other conductors championing the music of our time.

Two of our regional orchestras stand out for not offering particularly creative or progressive programing:

The Dubuque Symphony trots out Beethoven's Fifth Symphony again (sigh) even though it opened the orchestra's fiftieth anniversary season four seasons ago.  A program of American music seems more like "classics lite," with stalwarts like Copland (Fanfare for the Common Man and Old American Songs), Bernstein (choral selections from Candide) and Grofe (Grand Canyon Suite, a piece I recall first hearing on Captain Kangaroo.)  An all-Russian program offers Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, the Polovtsian Dances of Borodin, and two of Rimsky-Korsakov's triumvirate of orchestral splashes, Russian Easter Overture and Capriccio Espangol.  Ho-hum.

The culture of times past...
The Quad City Symphony does little better with a line-up of dead and (mostly) European males.  Although it has been difficult to access the orchestra's entire season line up, a capsule summary includes:

Wagner: Rienzi Overture
Violin concerto featuring new concertmaster (tba)
Dvorak:  Symphony No. 8

November 3 & 4: Beethoven's Sixth Symphony & Mozart's Clarinet Concerto

December 1 & 2: Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet & Verdi's Falstaff

February 9 & 10: Valentine’s Day with Five by Design

March 9 & 10: Pictures at an Exhibition & Rite of Spring

April 13 & 14: Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony & Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto

As I said, where are the living composers? Where are the Americans? The once progressive QC orchestra seems to be only concerned at putting bodies in the seats. Unfortunately, within the next ten to fifteen years, those bodies will be dead.

Coming home...making strides...
Orchestra Iowa (I still have trouble not calling it the Cedar Rapids Symphony) returns to its "home court" of the Paramount Theater, four years after the catastrophic floods of 2008. The "homecoming" concert includes music by a local composer, Jerry Owen's Glee, Gunther Schuller's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite and the ubiquitous Pictures at an Exhibition.  

Other interesting items of note (pun intended) a "Star-Crossed Lover's" program that offers a beat poem by Frank Oden, Grinnell College composer Eric McIntyre's Drive By, as well as the "usual suspects" by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Bernstein. The orchestra has also teamed with Ballet Quad Cities (have to wonder how that is playing out in Davenport) to offer The Nutcracker and Prokofiev's Cinderella in venues in Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities. The orchestra is also offering a premiere, Michael Daugherty's American Gothic, on its season-closing concert. 

Clearly the winner...
So while Orchestra Iowa must be congratulated for expanding its repertoire, the true winner of the 2012-13 "Huey" Award for creative orchestral program (again remember it's the sum total) must be the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony.  The orchestra established a new business model this spring, naming Music Director Jason Weinberger to a position as CEO.   While this may seem a daring move (and a daunting one for the Music Director), Weinberger has already proven that he has the chops to take the reins of an orchestra that had experienced at least ten years of conducting crises and turn it into a fine instrument, performing in the finest concert hall in the state.

Starting with an all-Bach program in April, the WCFSO includes new or little-known works on nearly every program, including:
  • September:   Gabriel Kahane: Crane Palimpsest (2012) with Gabriel Kahane, vocalist along with selections from Purcell's Fairy Queen.
  • October:  works by Ingolf Dahl: Quodlibet on American Folk Tunes and Folk Dances and Zoltán Kodály:  Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, ‘The Peacock’.
  • November, in collaboration with the Cedar Valley Chamber Music Festival:  works by Walter Piston, John Harbison, Morton Gould, Peter Schickele (not in his nom de plume PDQ Bach), and Samuel Barber. 
  • February:  more works by Barber and Harbison, including the latter's 2006 Concerto for Bass Viol.
  • March, along with the Northern Iowa Youth Orchestra, Iowa composer Jonathan Chenette's Rural Symphony (2000).
The musical choices have changed a great deal during the past year, at least within two of our area communities. But, to hear the gamut of the repertoire--from Bach (and before) to the present time--the place to be is the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center in Cedar Falls. 

Now it looks like I have some work cut out for me!

Sunday, May 6, 2012


In my "music appreciation" course at the local community college, I have attempted to stress to my students the fact that everything we are listening to is being heard out of its intended context. We've actually heard no "Gregorian" chant as I feel it must be experienced in its natural setting (which would be at the monastery less than five miles south of our classroom). Symphonies, of course, are written for concert halls; chamber music for smaller venues (although often heard in spaces the composers wouldn't have dreamed of).  And opera? It is as ridiculous to listen to a recording of La Boheme as it is to sit in a classroom, reading and analyzing Hamlet.

It's all about context: the ability to experience the art form on its "home court." Zachary Wolfe writes of the HD opera phenomenon in today's New York Times.  Also in today's Times, James Oestreich writes of the "Spring for Music" festival going on now at Carnegie Hall.  (This was previously commented upon in this blog.)

Focusing on New York, my friend and musical colleague, Peg Cornils, is presenting another recital at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall on May 18. How I wish I could attend!

Across the country, critics in southern California are talking about Simon Rattle, Alan Gilbert, and the ubiquitous Gustavo Dudamel.  It's probably time for me to let up on the "Dude," especially since I'm stealing programing ideas from him...AND here is a considerably interesting report of a Pacific Symphony program that invited local amateurs (first come-first served, no audition required!) to join the pros in a side-by-side performance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet.  Gotta love Carl St. Clair.

I am currently compiling information toward determining the 2012-13 "Huey" Awards for originality in orchestral programing (in Eastern Iowa).  I am please to note that--unlike last year--there are two orchestras in the running!  Unfortunately one orchestra is featuring a season full of mostly dead white European males and another is retreading works from its most recent past and definitely "selling out" its patrons relative to the musical world outside its sphere of influence. Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Two conductors; two tempi

A few weeks ago, during one of my many sojourns to the Quad Cities, I happened to catch the final two movements of Mozart's G-minor symphony.  At the conclusion, the announcer mentioned the ensemble and the conductor in a "well-mannered" performance.  So I have now learned that "well-mannered" means slow--dreadfully slow.  Interestingly enough, one of my mentors at UW-Madison, in a performance of the same work, took "all of the repeats," including those in the minuet and trio.  I was thinking that it would prove to be dreadfully long; it wasn't--in fact, it made a lot of sense.  Long story short, the well-mannered performance was dreadful (and presented by a major conductor--let's call him "A"--and orchestra).

Fast forward a couple of weeks to an evening performance on public radio which included the Schubert "Great" C-Major Symphony (I'll avoid the "number" because of all the evidence that seems to prove that it is number 8, even though everyone calls it number 9).  Conductor "B" began the stately horn theme in what seemed to be a brisk tempo, BUT there was no accelerando into the "dotted" theme.  So many conductors "interpret" in the latter that actually performing what Schubert wrote seems wrong.

Same lesson from Conductor "C," having heard performances of the opening of the Holst E-flat suite taken too slowly and then speeding up with the woodwind entrance.  Wrong, wrong, wrong--it's the same tempo throughout:  he wrote allegro moderato (I'm thinking--my score is not in front of me).  Thus, just like Schubert: one must take the opening faster than one thinks is "right" in order to maintain Holst's intentions.  It's as simple as that.

As for Mozart, he once said something to the effect that good musicians will be able to figure out the right speed for his work.  As another mentor once said, "if it seems right, it is."  I have to hope that I am never accused of a "well-mannered" Mozart performance.

UPDATE:  On further reflection, I was thinking of an on-air discussion I had yesterday with Barney Sherman of IPR.  We were talking about a recording we were about to play featuring Eugene Corporon and the amazing North Texas Wind Symphony.  Asking if I knew the conductor and his work, Barney's question took me back over 20 years to a conducting symposium at the University of Northern Iowa.  I had just conducted what I thought was a sumptuous reading of Grainger's Irish Tune from County Derry.  The playing and the expression were both astonishing and I was on cloud nine at the conclusion.  No problem, right? was "well-mannered," i.e. it was so slow that the tune didn't sing.  Lesson learned; if anything, people now tell me I take it on the fast side.  Of course, even without a text, it needs to sing!