Classical Music Round-Up: January through March 2016

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

Classical Conditioning presents recent worthwhile reads.

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.


#MakeItHappen: Jon Stewart, Alan Gilbert, and some thoughts on being a woman in classical music

Note: The use of the word “woman” throughout this post is meant to be inclusive of individuals who identify as women, womxn, femmes, trans, queer, and non-binary, and who experience oppression and misogyny on the basis of their gender identity, presentation, or expression.



Though Stewart’s announcement is almost a month old at this point, it still stings to imagine a 2016 election cycle without his brilliant, biting, and entirely necessary perspective.  I’ve been watching the Daily Show for literally half of my life — longer even than I’ve been playing oboe — and it’s going to be sad to watch him go.

As per usual, the Internet reacted to the news with a whirlwind variety of thoughts and opinions, and I was particularly struck by one sector of the online community’s call to action:

That Guardian headline gets it right — “It’s time.”  Isn’t it time?  Representation of women in late-night comedy is deplorably low, moderated by a systemic, male-dominated bias in the popular media.  (A white-male-dominated bias, I should add: Larry Wilmore of the Nightly Show is currently the only African-American late night comedy host on TV.)

Mere days before Jon Stewart announced his departure, another great man in the entertainment industry announced his impending resignation: Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic for the past eight years.  Though Gilbert won’t actually be leaving until 2017, his departure will leave a particularly prominent job position open for applicants.  Today, on International Women’s Day, I therefore offer the following proposal:

Alan Gilbert’s replacement should be a woman.  It’s time. Continue reading

Adventurous Orchestras

Congratulations to the 2012-13 winners of the ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming!  The winning ensembles (listed here), announced just days ago at the League of American Orchestras68th National Conference, were recognized for their dedication to expanding traditional repertoire as a way to engage audiences in both orchestral performance and contemporary music.

Check out this list of the winning repertoire — it includes symphonies and concerti, suites and oratorios, brand-new commissions and 20th-century standards, works for electronic instruments and even Native American flute.  (Click on those links to learn more about a few specific pieces!)  There are some great composers on this list — John Adams, John Williams, John Harbison, Henri Dutilleux, Krzysztof Penderecki, Joan Tower — alongside those whose names you’ve probably never heard of.  The sheer variety of styles and perspectives is staggering.

There are definite risks involved in programming “adventurous” music.  Some contemporary music comes across to an audience as intimidating or inaccessible — usually the esoteric, atonal stuff.  Other modern pieces — generally along the lines of film or video game scores — are tonal to the point of cheesiness, and may frustrate longtime concertgoers who prefer traditional repertoire.  Then there’s the issue of economy: many contemporary pieces call for uncommon instrumentation, extra personnel, soloist fees, and/or composer commission fees.  Is opening the audience to this new repertoire worth the monetary cost of performing it?  That is — will the piece generate enough curiosity (and, thereby, enough ticket sales) to pay for itself?

Snapshot from the NY Phil program booklet featuring works by Very Young Composers.  (See the whole booklet here.)
Snapshot from the NY Phil program booklet featuring works by Very Young Composers. (See the whole booklet here.)

One trend to note is the rise of new cultural and gender perspectives in orchestral repertoire — a minor respite from the ceaseless soundtrack of Dead White Guys.  The list of winning rep includes works by Turkish-American Kamran Ince, Grammy-winning Argentine Osvaldo Golijov, the incomparable Tan Dun of China, Brazilian-American Clarice AssadDai Fujikura of Japan, Persian composer Behzad Ranjbaran,  former Chicago Symphony composer-in-residence Augusta Read Thomas, Roberto Sierra of Puerto Rico, and Scottish composer Thea Musgrave (famous for saying, “Yes, I am a woman; and I am a composer.  But rarely at the same time”).  The New York Philharmonic even premiered works by ten- and eleven-year-old students in their Very Young Composers program.  The enormous variety of perspectives represented by these composers points to an increasingly global appreciation for symphonic music — not necessarily the Western music that usually dominates concert halls — and welcomes listeners of all backgrounds to discover music to which they may have a personal connection.  Continue reading

Some Notes on Program Notes

“The first movement is in sonata form, but lyric, not dramatic in any Beethovian sense.  Even the grand return to opening dotted theme in the major mode has no sense of theatricality about it.  The second movement is a wonderfully light Scherzo, filled with delicious rhythmic interplay between 2/4 and 6/8 time.  Its middle section, with muted strings, is only slightly more serious, but there the piano undercuts the solemnity.”

These are the words of musicologist/professional program note writer Steven Ledbetter, on Fauré‘s Piano Quartet No. 1 for the Eastern Music Festival 2012 season program book.  (I don’t mean to pick on Dr. Ledbetter; I was just looking through some old programs I have for an example to use in this post.)  This is only an excerpt from a passage of manageable length.  The paragraphs preceding the excerpt provide interesting biographical information on the composer and a brief discussion of late 19th-century French music… but all of a sudden he starts throwing out words like “sonata form” and “major mode” and anyone who hasn’t taken at least a semester of music theory (i.e., much of the audience) is lost.

There is a time and a place for musical jargon.  Program notes for, say, a master class, or a recital at a [IDRS/IVS/etc.] convention — performances where the audience is primarily made up of people who already have a fundamental knowledge of what exactly a “Beethovian sense” of drama might be or what constitutes “delicious rhythmic interplay between 2/4 and 6/8 time” — those program notes can be as jargon-y as you like.  But at a place like Eastern Music Festival (which I’ve attended), where the audience is about 80% made up of enthusiastic, arts-supporting community members who can’t tell the difference between an oboe and a bassoon, knowing that the first movement is in sonata form isn’t going to help anyone… unless you tell the audience what, exactly, sonata form is.  In fact, that would be great!  Providing a succinct explanation of sonata form would give the audience something interesting to listen for, as well as a new bit of knowledge to take home with them.  Program notes should educate; they should tell the reader what “sonata form” means — they just should not come across as lofty lectures, or dry lists of information, or prosy jargon-fests.  The whole point of program notes is to help the audience better understand the music; in order for that to happen, the program notes must be understood as well.  Continue reading