Thursday, December 31, 2015

Do we need a road map to get to classical music?

When people find out that I am a musician, the first question is always, "What do you play?" (Of course, the answer is invariably, "I play the stick; I'm a conductor!" Then, there is either a stunned silence or an, "I played saxophone (or something else) in middle school but I quit," usually stated with a sigh of regret. Eventually the conversation turns to "my" music and most people tell me that they really don't "get" classical music.

Middle school band--Yeah!
We hear of orchestras around the country struggling to maintain their viability. It wasn't that long ago that the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011. But, pundits have indicated that they're not yet out of the water. Peter Dobrin writes that the organization needs to "rethink its future." Of the once-famed "Philadelphia sound" he notes,

Ormandy has been gone for decades, and there has not been an abiding conservator of the Philadelphia Sound since. The orchestra has polish. But gone are the specifics of string fingerings, bow speeds, and other techniques extending well beyond the string section that made for a special mix of extreme power and blending. Some sections don't even cultivate a similar sound among themselves (think of the horns).

It could very well be that these concepts of discipline and unanimity, the institution above the individual, are simply passé.

It's sad, but not tragic. The Philadelphia Sound was made for an age in which orchestras were expected to exist simply for art's sake, holding an extremely specialized conversation among themselves. Today, the job of an orchestra is more outward looking, and the debates likely to follow a report expected in six months by consultant Michael M. Kaiser are long overdue.

In Philly, all they needed was a charismatic conductor....
And there's more,

The orchestra's problem isn't hard to see. It is under-capitalized. It has the quality of a top-tier ensemble, but lacks the endowment to support it. It needs more money to program and market properly, and if it were programming and marketing properly, it might attract more money. The Philadelphia Orchestra is the city's longest-running chicken-and-egg problem.

The challenge is steep. The fact that the orchestra has raised only $20 million in new endowment money in a year is troubling. Of greater concern is that even the $100 million goal wouldn't be enough; twice that is needed. Others have set their sights higher: The Curtis Institute of Music proposes to raise $265 million by its centenary in 2024. That's ambition.

Despite the need for endowment dollars, the twentieth-century orchestra, opera house, or what-have-you needs to put more butts in the seats. And those butts must be of a different demographic than the mostly white and graying audiences seen in our concert halls. Is it a matter of education? The view that this music and all of its trappings appeal only to a snobbish elite? A repertoire that has become more a museum of past masterworks than music that can appeal to a broader base? The cost of tickets (a most point when compared to popular music concerts). 

Let's face it: people are avoiding the concert halls in droves. The younger audience that every orchestra craves is too busy raising children to spend precious leisure time shelling out a fair amount of money (think of dinner, tickets, parking or other transpiration, babysitting) to make attendance possible.

And then there is that old, "I don't get classical music."

But how do we get it done?
The blame can't be laid solely on the back of education, although too much music (and art, and drama, and....) has been cut from too many schools. My own middle school general music class was horrible; don't get me wrong, I loved band and yet despised music class. This elderly blue-haired teacher would play records for us all day and simply tell us that this was great stuff. I never knew exactly why it was great stuff and, being the typical eighth grader, I had a tendency to doubt my elders. No, my music education began with lessons (guitar, organ, eventually other things) and also listening to the handful of classical recordings at home. The only one I remember was something called "Russian Fireworks" by the Royal Philharmonic. All the biggies were there. There had to be more records at home but there weren't many, and I remember none of them.

So how did I get off the ground. I'd found things that I liked (that Russian stuff) and went from there. The local library had a fair number of LPs and I'd spend hours listening to Toscanini conducting Beethoven symphonies. I can now figure out the music I listened to in my youth because those are the LPs that I still own. It's a very eclectic collection, but was set by finding what I liked and going from there.

I started here...
....and then went here.

I suppose that's how I teach music to the untaught. Take Cindy for example, "I don't know anything about what you do." OK, so I started with a few shorter things of varying periods, nothing too complex nor having too many instruments or voices. String quartets and Renaissance choral stuff works really well. And then you go from there. 

Then there is a friend of a friend, Kathleen, who attended her first live band concert a few months back. It was intended to be in the style of the "classic wind ensemble" (too few clarinets, too many trumpets) and included many of the "greatest hits" of that repertoire. Fell flat on its face for her; she probably didn't want to hear another such concert again. But again, my friend took her to one of my concerts (and no, I'm not patting myself on the back) and her mood changed greatly. Granted it was a holiday concert, but we did close with a 14+ minute work (that's long for a single movement wind work). She loved it. We'd given her a better place to "start."

And that's about all there is to it.

Some call me a wine snob because I know just a little about wine and I know what I like. With regard to varietals, I don't like Merlot but some people do. That's their choice (although there remains an undercurrent of quotes from the film, Sideways). For me, it's all about finding something I like and not paying an arm and a leg. Who'd have thought that a Sangiovese Rose from Australia (!) could be so good. Or a $6.99 mass-produced dry Riesling? For me, it's about the wine and the food: what goes best with what. I'm not a snob in wine, coffee (though again, I am somewhat hard to please) or music. I know what I like.

There's the old adage, "I don't know much about art (or insert classical music, theater, etc) but I know what I like." Is there really anything wrong with that?

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Star Wars Phenomenon

(N.B. This is a discussion of the music, not the film. For the record, I'm not a fan of the latest installment.)

There is quite an argument going on (of which I am a part) over at the pages of Slipped Disc over the sales of The Force Awakens soundtrack to that of "classical" music. While this recording sold over 90,000 copies in the U.S. last week, the blogger (Norman Lebrecht) states that "classical" recordings totaled significantly less, "The top 25 classical albums put together sold just under 9,000 copies in the US, the world’s largest market, according to Nielsen Soundscan."

Prokofiev: HE wrote film music!

Of course, this brings up the argument of what exactly is meant by the term "classical." Incidental music by composers such as Mendelssohn, Grieg, Bizet and others is classical and film scores are not. Even if they're written by Prokofiev or Shostakovich? What of the theater? Merry Widow is performed at the Met while the Chicago Lyric is denigrated for presenting Broadway musicals. What makes one art and the other fluff? Zauberflote has much more spoken dialogue than Les Miserables, but, again, one is suitable for the opera stage and the other relegated to the Great White Way.

Oscar Hammerstein's daddy,
also named Oscar...

Oscar Hammerstein I, father of the most prolific (and popular) librettists of his time, was very active in his early career building opera houses. The 1906 Manhattan Opera House (his eighth such theatre), successfully challenged productions at the Met, while his Philadelphia Opera House (1908) still stands, although in a state of serious disrepair due to neglect. But I digress.

Maybe it's important to note the precursors that inspired John Williams in Star Wars and his other film scores. Violinist Timothy Judd writes (and I agree):

     "The music of Wagner and Star Wars are both fundamentally motivic. Connections and associations with characters and ideas are made frequently through leitmotifs. These are often fleeting references which suddenly emerge out of the deeply contrapuntal fabric of the music and quickly dissolve. But they occur at crucial moments, and powerfully influence the way we perceive the drama. Listen to the way Princess Leia’s theme is transformed. Keep listening, and you’ll hear an interesting reference to Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. Fast forward to this lushly romantic music from The Force Awakens (Han and Leia) and you’ll hear similar leitmotifs in succession. A battle takes place between leitmotifs in an excerpt, heard later in The Force Awakens (music vaguely reminiscent of the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony).
     John Williams’ influences extend beyond Mahler and Bartok to include most of the significant composers of the twentieth century, from Shostakovich to Stravinsky. For example, compare this recurring motive and this moment towards the end of Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony. Or listen to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and compare it with Duel Of The Fates from The Phantom Menace. In Han Solo Returns from Return of the Jedi, Williams slips into the eerie atonality of Schoenberg, with a hint of late-Mahler angst. At times, he captures the hazy, shimmering exoticism of Alan Hovhaness. Beyond the regal Throne Room music at the end of the first movie, Williams’ trademark closely-voiced brass bell tones and swirling string and woodwind lines owe a lot to William Walton’s Crown Imperial March. Then, there are the obvious similarities between the Star Wars main title music and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1941 score for the film, Kings Row. The Force Awakens score occasionally evokes the sense of timeless mystery we hear in "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age" and "Neptune, the Mystic" from Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets."

The point I am trying to make is that the music from The Force Awakens can be an important "gateway" into the world of classical music. I owned the 2-disc LP set of the original Star Wars soundtrack long before I saw the film. It wasn't long after that however, that I began to experience, mostly in live performance, the music of Mahler, Debussy, Prokofiev, and much, much more. The rest is (my) history.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Creativity and mental illness

"I know that if I could really understand mental illness, then it would be appropriate to make a big career shift. I would become a therapist and a leader in terms of mental illness. But I'm not in the position."   John Forbes Nash, Jr.

* * * * * * * * * *

News about mental illness has become the rage these days with regard to the plethora of mass shootings in the U.S. Every time there is one of these events, the dreaded mental illness card is played. "If mental illness was better treated..." "If mentally ill people couldn't get guns...." "If there wasn't such a stigma about mental illness...."

There remains a stigma about mental illness. It's not something that anyone really brings up in "polite" conversation. The question, "How are you today?" does not really ask for an honest answer because no one really wants to know how the mentally ill person is feeling. S/he might be holding on for dear life but is so good at appearing "normal" that people are shocked when that person suddenly snaps.

It's often been posited that mental illness and creativity go hand in hand; there may be more truth to this than we're willing to admit. Of course, the "famous" examples like Robert Schumann and Tchaikovsky immediately come to mind but certainly there are many more. How did their depression, mania, or other psychological malady adversely affect their creative output? Or did it actually help it along the way?

Peter Illych Tchaikovsky
Dr. Richard Kogan writes of Schumann's bipolar disorder, "Schumann demonstrated both the creative advantages and disadvantages of mental illness. During his episodic depressive periods, he composed virtually nothing because he had difficulty in concentrating and was seized by the delusional conviction that he was a worthless composer. But when he cycled into hypomanic states, he was prolific. He made use of the increased energy, sharpened imagination, and decreased need for sleep to create original musical masterpieces. The arc of his career reveals episodic bouts of staggering creativity. He composed 3 string quartets in a 2-week period and completed 140 songs in 1 year. Many clinicians have noted that bipolar individuals can be resistant to compliance with treatment regimens because many of them do not want to give up the creative “highs” associated with their mania."

Robert Schumann

Beethoven's deafness turned him into an angry man and its certain that he suffered from acute depression. This and considerations of suicide are well chronicled in his "Heiligenstadt Testament." But music kept him from the abyss, "it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence."

Kogan on Beethoven: "Ludwig van Beethoven suffered from a variety of psychiatric symptoms, including persecutory delusions, volatile moods, ex-plosive rages, and suicidal ideation. But I believe that he is most compelling as the quintessential example of a characteristic of mental health, specifically, resilience or the capacity to cope with adversity. Deafness, a hardship for anyone, is a catastrophe for a musician. But Beethoven ultimately embraced the loss of his hearing as an opportunity to fulfill his artistic destiny. Locked in the silent world of his imagination, Beethoven created a musical language that was different from anything that had previously existed. He anticipated the sonorities of the modern piano, writing sonatas such as the Appassionata and the Hammerklavier, which vastly exceeded the capacity for resonance of the instruments of his era. And he wrote works such as his renowned fifth and ninth symphonies, which begin with dramatic conflict and end in triumph and transcendence, paralleling the narrative arc of his own life story." 

While it has been proved that, among the causes of Beethoven's death was lead poisoning (probably because of compounds used in the wines of the day), many composer's were true alcoholics. The most significant would have to be Modest Mussorgsky, probably the most gifted of the "Mighty Handful". He would certainly occupy a more prominent place in the pantheon of music history if it weren't for the disease that took his life at age 42.

Peter Warlock, aka
Philip Heseltine
Among others suffering from acknowledged depression include Sergei Rachmaninov, Orlande de Lassus, Carlo Gesualdo, John Dowland, Hector Berlioz, Mikhail Glinka, Anton Bruckner, Anton Arensky, Hugo Wolf, and Charles Ives. Berlioz, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Wolf tried to kill themselves and failed. Jeremiah Clarke succeeded by shooting himself and Peter Warlock decided to "overdose" on carbon monoxide.

Clarke, the REAL author of
"Trumpet Voluntary"
But again, is there a correlation between creativity and mental illness? Examining the lives of Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath would lead to that conclusion, but for now, I'll let Kogan have the last word.

"Creative people tend to see the world in novel and unconventional ways, and they often seek out intense and destabilizing experiences. Creative ideas are frequently generated during chaotic mental states characterized by loosening of associations that resemble the psychosis of mania or schizo-phrenia. 

The mystery of creative genius has long been one the most fascinating problems for those who seek to understand the mind. Freud once remarked that the essence of artistic genius was beyond the comprehension of psychoanalysts. Neuroscientists and brain researchers today are striving to unlock the mystery and complexity of the creative process."

John Forbes Nash, Jr.
Nobel Laureate

Sunday, December 27, 2015

QCWE 30th Anniversary Season - Walking the Walk

This year marks the 30th anniversary season of the Quad City Wind Ensemble. Founded by Dr. Charles DCamp, then Director of Bands at St. Ambrose University, it has become, in the words of Myron Welch, Director of Band Emeritus at the University of Iowa, "one of the best adult bands in the country." The QCWE has performed six times at the prestigious Iowa Bandmasters Association conference and was the winner of the 2012 American Prize in Band Performance (community division).

I am the fifth Music Director of the ensemble and am in the midst of my ninth season with the organization. I suppose that gives me some sense of longevity. During my tenure, I have strived to develop the QCWE, through a combination of "cornerstone" works, as well as new literature. We have performed a concert dedicated solely to the work of women composers and commissioned a work, Roy Magnuson's To have seen the worst…but expect the best…in commemoration of our twenty-fifth season.

The QCWE is experiencing unprecedented musical growth and fiscal strength. A series of outstanding Board Chairs has brought new insights and ideas to the group, allowing the Music Director the luxury of expanded programing. This year alone we are reaching much larger audiences and playing at the top of our game. Our first concert, Inspiration, included compositions influenced by factors outside the music itself: people, places, things, fact, and fiction. The program included:
  • Testament (1988) Robert Jager
  • Esprit de Corps (1878) John Philip Sousa
  • “Nimrod,” from Enigma Variations (1899/1965) Edward Elgar, arr. Alfred Reed
  • Of Sailors and Whales—Five Scenes from Melville (1990) W. Francis McBeth

  • Buffalo Dances (2006) Robert W. Smith
  • Scenes from Billy the Kid (1938/2000) Aaron Copland, arr. Quincy Hilliard
  • Hymn to the Infinite Sky—Poem for Wind Orchestra (2003) Satoshi Yagisawa
While I don't usually put much stock in such things, we received a standing ovation in the middle of the program (after McBeth). This was a stimulating program, with what I felt was a great deal of variety. It seems important to note, however, that only three of the seven composers represented are still living. For an art form whose history is relatively young (the first compositions for the "modern wind band" date from the early twentieth century), this really isn't a very good track record.

Many composer speak of being "advocates of new music" and I believe that I am. But the time had come to put money where my mouth was. And, quite literally, we've been able to do that. Thanks to a generous donation from a local business (solicited by another board member), we've purchased (as opposed to endless begging and borrowing) all of the music for our February 28 performance. It's Musica Nova, consisting of music all written after 2001 by little known composers, some at the very beginning of their careers. And it's important to note that no dead, white, European, males are allowed. The program looks something like this:

Celebrating new art
Daniel Montoya, Jr.: Release the Hounds  (2012) 

Michael Mikulka: Marche Slava (2009) $60.00 (3:00)

Kenyon Wilson: Five (consortium-commissioned premiere)

Julie Giroux: No Finer Calling (Symphony) (2007) 

Jared Beu: Toward Skies End  (2012)

David Maslanka: Remember Me (2013) for cello and 19 players  

Rick Kirby: Of Banners Crimson and Golden Skies (2014)

I am thrilled to conduct this concert. I know none of the works, so the program will be a challenge for the conductor and the ensemble. As for the audience, you're going to love it!

Saturday, December 26, 2015


Since my last post was in JULY, it seemed about time that I reboot Score and Podium. I've not dropped the baton and fallen from the face of the earth; it's just that daily writing somehow ended up on the back burner. When I last wrote, the Berlin Phil was in the midst of a conductorial coronation, the Minnesota Orchestra was coming out of its management-imposed fog, the NY Phil was searching for a conductor (they still are) and much more.

Here are (from Anne Midgette at the Washington Post) some of the bigger stories of the year.

  • Taylor Swift gave $50K to the Seattle Symphony in recognition of that orchestra's recording of John Luther Adams's Become Ocean.
  • The deliberations of the Berlin Phil, held at a suburban church (frequent recording site) ended up with a no-decision. It wasn't until over a month later that the darkest of horses, Kiril Petrenko, was announced as the next MD of that august orchestra.
Kiril Petrenko
  • Christoph Eschenbach is departing the National Symphony. About time. It's staggering to note that he is the highest-paid stick waver in the land. As earlier stated, Alan Gilbert is leaving New York; the silence of that "search" is eerily quiet. On a more recent note, Leonard Slatkin is retiring from the Detroit Symphony. He guided that ensemble through a near-crippling strike as well as the overall malaise that has hit that once-gilded city.
  • Midgette speaks of "anti social media": "The pianist Valentina Lisitsa got her 15 minutes of fame when her earthy and graphic tweets about Ukranian and Russian politics led the Toronto Symphony to cancel her appearance. Another 10 minutes or so went to Jonas Tarm, the young composer who wrote a piece including an excerpt from a popular Nazi song who refused to discuss it with the New York Youth Symphony and then, when it canceled the work as a result, took to social media to cry censorship. What at first seemed an illustration of artists’ effective use of Twitter against lumbering big organizations, for better or worse, ultimately demonstrated that Twitter is a volatile and often misinformed tool, but a useful one to be able to play with in the 21st century."
  • The opening of Cuba. Our president's move to improve relations with our southern neighbor has resulted in a quickening of cultural exchange, albeit primarily one-sided. Oslo Vanska and his amazing Minnesotans beat all others out of the gate with a concert tour in May. Subsequent performances have included jazz artists in Cuba and Cuban performers in the U.S. Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony led the Cuban National Orchestra in an October concert with pianist, Lang Lang.
From some of my own musings:

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony (now the wcfsymphony) continues to amaze with creative programming. If you want to hear Bach in the way that is closer to what he intended, their next performance (February) features the master's works at the Brown Derby, downtown Waterloo. Catch them if you can.

The Paris Philharmonie has opened to somewhat mixed reviews. One thing is certain: the exterior is damn ugly, reminding me of the crashed spaceships in the recently-release Star Wars film.

Lincoln Center will (again) be gutting the hall formerly known as Avery Fisher and leaving the Philharmonic on the street for two years. Where will they play? No one knows, but Alan Gilbert won't have to worry about it.

There's talk of building a new concert hall in London. Albert Hall is too damn big for anything but the Proms and others, Queen Elizabeth and Royal Festival Hall among them, are either aesthetically or acoustically deficient (or both). Much of this is predicated on Simon Rattle's return to the UK to lead the London Symphony. We'll see what happens.

Her Royal Highness has to be ashamed...

A concert hall or a car dealership?

As always, these are just a few of the highlights. In my next post, we'll try to catch up with an extremely exciting season with the Quad City Wind Ensemble.