Thoughts and Prayers

On Sunday, June 12, a lone gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and slaughtered 49 people, injuring 53 others.  This marks the most fatal mass shooting by a single assailant in U.S. history (though even deadlier massacres against civilians have haunted this nation’s past).

The club was hosting “Latin Night” and spotlighting trans performers, so the shooting explicitly targeted not only the already-marginalized LGBT community [1], but also a marginalized ethnic community.  Though the media has been frenziedly touting “radical Islam” as the shooter’s motive, there is no denying that the primary force that drove this tragedy — this invasion of a safe space for a community already disproportionately vulnerable to violence, homelessness, and suicide — was, above all, homophobia.

I’m heteroromantic, white, and cisgender, so I won’t use this platform to co-opt the LGBT and Latinx communities’ grief.  That’s not what this post is about.  Instead, I’m here to talk about classical music.

Remember the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last October?  Probably not, because it’s been overshadowed by the 200+ acts of mass gun violence that have taken place in the U.S. since then (Orlando included).  Regardless — back in October, Hartford-based classical music critic Steve Metcalf published an article entitled “Imagine Classical Music and Gun Control: It Isn’t Hard to Do,” which he later adapted as a radio piece following December’s attack in San Bernardino.

In the article, Metcalf talks about the trope of “thoughts and prayers,” words that are often expressed sincerely yet empty of intent or ability to take action:

I was struck this time by how many people, including President Barack Obama, made the point that they were so very weary of conveying their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims’ families and friends.  The phrase is sincerely offered, of course, but increasingly seems inadequate to the task, particularly when we’re called upon to use it so often.

Metcalf then points to the classical music world’s equivalent of the “thoughts and prayers” paradigm — the famous quote by Leonard Bernstein, noted pacifist and champion of civil rights, penned following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963:

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

The Bernstein quote has been widely circulated on my social media feeds ever since Sunday.  The Orlando Philharmonic even posted it on their Facebook page.  And I’m no less guilty, having shared it on Tumblr last night.  As Metcalf writes, “It has become the classical music world’s automatic, default response.”

Continue reading

Classical Music Round-Up: January through March 2016

I’ve been on blogging hiatus for almost two months.  Here’s the low-down.

Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (photo via)

It was announced that Gianandrea Noseda will take over the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra next season, while Jaap van Zweden will join the New York Philharmonic at the podium.  Two more white men in charge of major American orchestras?  No big surprise there, but Marin Alsop might have something to say.  Meanwhile, in Britain, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be the City of Birmingham Symphony’s new leading lady, at only 29 years old.  *applause*  And another young conductor on the rise: 25-year-old Jordan de Souza will be heading up Komische Oper Berlin.

We lost some greats in recent months: business mogul turned self-taught conductor Gilbert Kaplan; pioneering composer Pierre Boulez; Pulitzer-winning composers Leslie Bassett and Steven Stucky; Dallas Symphony leader Louis Lane; conducting pedagogue Otto-Werner Mueller; and — just today — maestro Nikolas Harnoncourt.

Now some feel-good stories: a Berlin horn player reflects on collaborating with Simon Rattle before the conductor relocates to London; Tafelmusik’s rendition of Beethoven 9 left one Toronto critic with nothing to criticize; bassist Jane Little just became the longest-serving orchestral musician ever, after 71 years with the Atlanta Symphony; and Ennio Morricone just won his first Oscar after working on the scores for over 500 films.

Mahan Esfahani’s harpsichord recital was interrupted by Baroque-head “rioters,” while scholars have discovered that the taxi horns in Gershwin’s An American in Paris might be pitched in the wrong key, and the Yale School of Music launched its first ever MOOC on Coursera.

As 2016 got off to an alarming start (Donald Trump, anyone?), diverse voices shone — from a powerful performance in a Harlem crypt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter; to violinist Rosemary Johnson and the UK’s Paramusical Ensemble making music through disability; to Julia Wolfe’s big-deal commission — a piece about American women in the workforce — for the New York Philharmonic’s 2018-19 season; to composer Georg Friedrich Haas’ open sexuality.

In U.S. politics, WQXR explored classical music on the campaign trail, while Bernie is, apparently, a gifted maestro.  And in the classical crime beat, an opera singer’s “screams” alerted Amsterdam police, a former St. Paul cellist was caught in a massive drug bust, and a rare French horn stolen six years ago was reunited with its owner.

In Iran, the women of the Tehran Symphony face oppression.  In Germany, an emergency refugee camp is filled with the music of a children’s choir.

Gustavo Dudamel led the Youth Orchestra L.A. at Superbowl halftime.  Grammy-winning violist Kim Kashkashian shares the woes of her name.  The Telegraph had a really interesting conversation with Renée Fleming, Anne Midgette profiled musicians who take time off from performing, and drama continues to unfold in the Buffalo Philharmonic oboe section.

A new Mozart opera was discovered and performed, while for the rest of the opera world, it’s same-old, same-old.

And finally, to end this round-up with a smile: watch a Bach duet played by a 90-year-old husband and wife.

Normal People Listen: Bonnie listens to Mendelssohn

It’s time for another installment of Normal People Listen to Classical Music!  In which real humans who don’t usually listen to classical music share their thoughts after listening to a classical piece.

npltcmName: Bonnie

Age: 20

Hometown: McLean, VA

Interests: Short walks to the refrigerator, long walks on the beach, and spending time with friends in comedy clubs

Find Bonnie online! and

Piece: “Allegro assai” from String Quartet No. 6 in F minor by Felix Mendelssohn


I’d like to say I’m not a COMPLETE novice when it comes to music. I took a music appreciation and a music theory course when I was in high school. However, both classes ended up consisting of listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D over and over and over to the point where my notebooks became filled with angry puns like “Taco Bells Canon” and “Pachelbel’s Canon needs to be a canOFF.” (Heads up, if you hate puns, leave now.) Needless to say, “music appreciation” didn’t really leave me appreciating music all that much, and as I continued on down the path of life, classical music left me feeling more lost than a Malaysian aircraft. (Is that joke still relevant?)

Then, this past summer a beautiful thing happened to me and I began an internship at The Kennedy Center where I was exposed to more art and music than I could have ever imagined. By the end of the summer I would even say that classical music was alleGROWing on me, so when my friend Carly asked if I would guest write a review for her blog I jumped at the chance, and then took 3 months to actually write the review because balancing 2 comedy groups, several theatrical productions, a career as a stand-up comedian, work, and school is hard…Who sleeps? Anyways, now that you know that classical music isn’t really my FORTE, but puns are, I feel like we can get into the actual review.

The video begins by showcasing the venue, Powerhouse Arena, which appears to be a bookstore and performance space all wrapped into one, or in other words: heaven on earth! I mean, books and art are two great things that go great together, its like milk & cookies, peanut butter & jelly, or cake & my face. The world needs more of these things.

Then, the video continues and we see the string quartet. I’m immediately sent into flashbacks from PachelHELL, and I remember one of my old notes that read “Obe! Violins never solved anything!” but I stuck it out, kept listening, and I wasn’t disappointed. The first notes of the song are super fitting for the arena, because they are a POWERHOUSE! I mean these guys just do not REST! If this song were to play as part of the soundtrack of someone’s life it would probably appear the moment after they accidentally touch someone’s butt while walking past them, and are forced to decide whether or not to acknowledge the situation by apologizing, because that is stressful stuff!

The song continues on to fluctuate between sections that feel calm and somber and other moments that feel angry and violent. In some ways it’s the musical equivalent of the mood swings I feel when someone tells me they’re voting for Trump. The song even ends on a both physically and metaphorically “plucky” moment similar to when I get up the courage to voice my opinions.

Final Thoughts: You leGATo listen to this. I also highly suggest watching the video, because the musician’s faces seem to express everything from “Oh no, we’re in TREBLE” to “Is the music drunk? Its SLURring everything,” and even “Does my instrument really smell like that?” I might even listen to it a few more times myself for good MEASURE.

Pierre Boulez: ‘Courage, innovation, creativity’

The incomparable maestro, whose compositions, texts, and interpretations sparked an entire era of musical boundary-breaking, passed away yesterday at the age of 90.  France’s prime minister Manuel Valls paid tribute to Boulez’s “audace, innovation, créativité” — traits which defined not only the man and his works, but also the weird, wild, spellbinding world that we know as New Music, in which Boulez was a trailblazing pioneer.

Boulez’s passing comes a little over three years after that of Elliott Carter, another New Music legend.  These two men were characters in my music history textbook, filling the final chapters — the late 20th and early 21st centuries — with their music, vibrant and vicious.  The fact that their lives and deaths overlapped with my own lifetime makes me wonder: if their era has ended, what era has begun?  In fifty years’ time, who will occupy the final chapters of my granddaughter’s music history textbook?

But then, in music, is there ever truly a final chapter?

R.I.P. Pierre Boulez, 1925-2016

Learn more:

Classical Music Round-Up: Star Wars Edition

Classical Conditioning presents this week’s worthwhile reads… in a galaxy far, far away…

An ‘awestruck’ J.J. Abrams sits in on a ‘momentous’ scoring session led by John Williams, linked below. (image via)

Harrison Ford shares what it was like to hear John Williams’ music for the first time, while the composer himself discusses the “renewed energy” behind his score to The Force Awakens.

60 Minutes takes us behind the scenes at a Force Awakens scoring session, and the incomparable Gustavo Dudamel played a surprise role in bringing the score to life.

May the cute be with you: From the Top shows us what happens when a Jedi, a princess, and Darth Vader sit down at a piano, and the Boston Pops #throwback to that one time C-3PO conducted the Star Wars theme.

Suggested Listening: “Tenebræ factæ sunt” by Carlo Gesualdo

Here’s some SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTICTenebræ factæ sunt by Carlo Gesualdo, performed below by Nordic Voices (NO).

About the Composer:

Carlo Gesualdo (image via)

Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) is classical music’s darkest villain, a man whose eerie music is matched by a chilling biography comprising adultery, madness, and gruesome homicide.  From an early age, Gesualdo was enthralled by music, studying lute and forging relationships with local musical luminaries as a member of an elite accademia, or intellectual club.  Sent as a child to train for the priesthood, Gesualdo watched as his older brother Luigi was designated heir to the Principality of Venosa in southern Italy.  Luigi’s death in 1584, however, paved the way for Carlo’s ascension to power.  In 1586, Don Carlo Gesualdo married his cousin, the mythically beautiful Donna Maria d’Avalos, with whom he had a son and who, not four years after their marriage, could be found with her throat slashed, drenched in blood, in the bed of her lover.  The lover in question, the Duke of Andria, was murdered as well: the official who found the Duke’s body noted that his corpse was wearing “a woman’s nightdress with fringes at the bottom” and was “covered with blood and pierced with many wounds,” while “a bit of the brain had oozed out” of a gunshot wound to the head.  As a prince, a man of great influence and — apparently — violent inclination, Gesualdo was never tried for his crimes; in fact, he fled town following the murders, leaving behind a bizarre legacy: a trail of lurid rumors that to this day inhabit Italian folklore;  and dozens of musical compositions, sacred and secular, renowned for their twisted emotional intensity.

About the Piece:

The question that haunts Gesualdo’s musical legacy is this: was he a tormented genius whose inner turmoil came to life in the unusual, grating harmonies of his compositions — or, were his unusual, grating harmonies the result of mediocre musical talent, nonetheless thrust into the spotlight by the macabre glamour of his criminal record?  Regardless of the answer, Gesualdo’s music is widely viewed as ahead of its time, pushing the notion of tonality across thresholds of conventionality that most Western composers wouldn’t dare toe until the turn of the 20th century.  In Tenebræ factæ sunt, a selection from his set of liturgical works for Good Friday, six voices croon and cluster in stirring harmonies that progress through tightly adjacent chromatic lines.  Though the pacing is calm — almost eerily so — the piece is marked by surprising shifts of mood, from despair to ecstasy, as the Latin text recounts the crucifixion.

Further Reading:

If you enjoyed Tenebræ factæ sunt, you might also like…

Between Thanksgivings

I’ll start with a quote, because all great blog posts begin with a quote.

This particular quote comes to us from Karl Paulnack, Director of the Boston Conservatory‘s Music Division, in his 2004 welcome address to the school’s incoming freshmen:

If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life.  Well, my friends, someday at eight PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary.  Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

End quote.  Keep it in mind.  I’ll get back to it in a bit.

Forty-six days separate Canadian and American Thanksgivings, which sounds like a long time, but in reality, those forty-six days seemed to pass as though each were chasing the next at gunpoint.

Canadian Thanksgiving falls on a Monday — in the motherland, this coincides with an observance known as Columbus Day, which serves little purpose other than shutting down the post office — making for a three-day weekend that pales in comparison to American Thanksgiving’s five.  I celebrated in a triptych of dinners: vegan tacos, duets, and oboe reeds with a lovely friend on Saturday; a potluck and Cards Against Humanity (Canadian expansion, naturally) with quintet members on Sunday; and cashew-cauliflower soup, pumpkin pie, and Friends (“The One with Joey’s Interview”) with my fantastic roommate on Monday.

During Sunday’s festivities, I learned about the following, slightly traumatizing PSA that aired throughout western Canada in the early Nineties, which I am sharing here because viewing it is — truly — a life experience that everyone ought to have:

Thanksgiving is a time for many things: food, friends, gratitude — and, apparently, Clinton-era, public health-related puppetry — which is why Day 33 of my inter-Thanksgiving countdown was such a horrifying antithesis to the spirit of the season.

Day 33 was November 13.   Continue reading