Too bad, #Two Boys

“Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for a real Republican every time.” Harry Truman

Thus, the reception of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Met could be described as classical music acting like pop, with predictable results…

The praise and pans are in for Nico Muhly’s premiere of ‘Two Boys’ at the Met. The company’s long-awaited commission is one of the higher profile attempts to reach a new audience, a noble effort that unfortunately has been attempted many times before. When a performer or composer from outside of classical music is engaged to work with a classical institution, one of two things happen. 1) the star’s fan base comes out for the performance(s) but never returns to hear anything else again, or 2) the fan base doesn’t come out, and neither do mainstay audiences. In this case, despite efforts to promote the premiere among the people who might not normally come to opera but might like Muhly, Williamsburgers saw no need to trek up to the Met when they could download him at home.

Another part of the problem might have been simple. The music was not very good. Continue reading

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Are you flippin’ kidding me?

As if the news from Minnesota and NYCO weren’t bad enough, there will be no opening night concert at Carnegie Hall tonight. Conflict with the stage hand union over what counts as a performing venue, rather than an educational one, it seems. Carnegie Hall is set to open a new education wing, where IATSE/Local 1 would like to expand jurisdiction – as in, get paid their contracted rates to do their work in the new space. In other words, money is the hold up.

After all this bad news, hopefully at some point soon, administrators will start choosing the shortest path to making music, instead of proving a point. Money has to come from somewhere. But the people – stagehands, musicians, singers, etc – who are familiar with the space, loyal to the company, and work well together, should get some priority.

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In Defense of Development

The music world bates its breath this month, with the nail-biting reality show that is the Minnesota Orchestra debacle scheduled to come to some sort of conclusion. Shout out to the ever-entertaining and vital Song of the Lark for revelatory discoveries and for fomenting the proletariat to action. But as a devoted member of the fundraising profession (or at least gainfully employed), I must rise to my colleagues’ defense.

I can only imagine what it’s been like to work in the development department during this lock-out year. And yes, their summer appeal letter is pretty thin reading. But surely the poor shlubs getting the letters out the door want to keep their jobs next year, and for that to happen, more money has to appear from somewhere. 

Yes, as SotL tells us, the board and management have been about as responsive to the public as a sequestered jury, but at least in terms of fundraising protocol, a bit of head in the sand is part of best practices. I once worked for an institution during an extremely longscary, and embarrassing stretch of PR. Believe me, my appeal letters and proposals talked about anything but.

When leadership makes a mess, it’s the working stiffs – administrative or artistic – that get stuck forging a way forward. Fundraising is going to be one of the ways back, led by staffers who get to negotiate the already complicated ballet of donor relations. Unfortunately, there are no “innovative fundraising methods” (as the Lark would prefer) that can raise a significant amount of dollars and is strikingly different than doing what that letter did – appealing to a personal connection with the project and hoping for the best. 

Orchestra troubles are frequently in the press, usually cited as emblematic of American’s increasing indifference to classical music. That is certainly a factor. But so often the causes of financial demise come back to poor managerial decisions. Philip Kennicott mentions the effect of misguided lay leaders in his eloquent summary of the troubles of American orchestras in the latest New Republic.  

I join the Lark, Alex Ross, and much of the rest of the musical world in dismay and bafflement over the cavalier attitude the Minnesota Orchestra board and management appear to have toward the real risk of smashing one of America’s musical gems. And worst of all, it’s the musicians who will have to suffer through steep compromises to keep the show going on. Finances don’t lie.

In light of the quagmire, the music of the lonesome Finn Sibelius makes for poignant listening. Sibelius, the countryman of the orchestra’s star conductor, Osmo Vänskä, who over ten years turned what could have been another struggling regional orchestra into a close-knit ensemble of international renown. Sibelius, whose spacious music surely must speak to the large number of Minnesotans with Finnish heritage. Sibelius would have felt at home in Minnesota. 

It’s time for everyone to strike a note of conciliation – however bitter that feels – and get this great orchestra back on track.

Here’s the complete 6th symphony with Vänskä conducting his orchestra. Begin at 18:33 for the last movement and some signature Sibelius: gestures that take their time appearing, are gone much too soon, and make you miss them the instant they disappear.

(Really, really, sorry about those ads.)

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Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died today

Composers have seasons dedicated to their anniversary years. The artists who perform their music go soundlessly to Orcus below.

I felt like I knew Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, as many did who heard her sing. She died 7 years ago today, at age 52 from complications from cancer. In addition to her liquid tone, and the way she imbued every note with personal meaning and intent, I admired most that she made music on her own terms.

Continue reading

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How the rest of the world listens

Here in the thousandfold echo chamber, we are different cultural consumers than most. Our live entertainment, at least before certain events, consists of concerts of classical music, with the occasional ballet or opera. Rare movies. Nothing remotely popular. Of course we don’t have a TV.

So you can say that we are a little out of touch with the non-classical audience (which comprises most of the world). To illustrate just how much, here are three amusing vignettes, which each illustrate something about the ears of the common man. Continue reading

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A note on recent events

Krystian Zimerman

Pianist Krystian Zimerman kicked off quite a storm when he stalked off the stage earlier this month. “The destruction of music because of YouTube is enormous,” he railed. Sigh. As much as I enjoy mining the troves for good tunes, Zimerman has a point.

It’s not about money, as some commentators (in the comments section) might speculate. Musicians net very little from recordings nowadays, which largely serve as promotion to presenters. A member of the American Brass Quintet once mentioned to me that in 30 years, their large discography had netted the group around $10,000, and this was in the 90s. Digital music is bad for classical music for other reasons. Continue reading

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Sunday Morning Listening: La Cheminee Du Roi Rene

Shout out to WQXR for playing this on the radio last week, La Cheminée due Roi René a pleasant gem that doesn’t get much play.

Darius Milhaud was an incredibly prolific (this is opus 205!) 20th century French composer with a penchant for polytonality and playfulness. My impression of playing his music is its beauty, and deceptive simplicity. It sounds pleasant and straightforward, but his music’s lilt comes from a rhythmic complexity that keep performers counting like mad. It’s like a walk through a field of lavender when someone keeps moving the field from under you.

His music comes up fairly often among a B list of composers, but his other legacy is his wide range of distinguished students, including Dave Brubeck, who died last year. He was influenced enough by Milhaud to name his first sone Darius. Student carried on his teacher’s playfulness and willingness to push the limits. Jazz in 5/8:

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