Travels

I’ve been traveling, both for work and pleasure. The work part was two events in Aspen, both at the music festival, one a private conference on professional music education, the other a pair of public panels involving music critics. This last is the second installment of what I hope will be an ongoing series, and it’s an extraordinary project, not least because it was conceived and carried out by the festival’s director of marketing and public relations, Laura Smith. How often does a marketing and PR director plan and fund a project like this? The Aspen Music Festival and School should be grateful to her, and to her director of publications, Jeremy Simon, for giving them such a gift.

This year, there were four critics attending (or three and a tenth, if you count me as only very partially a critic), myself, my wife Anne Midgette, from The New York Times, Tim Page from The Washington Post, and Willa Conrad, from The Star-Ledger of Newark. Terrific people, smart, musical, a pleasure to talk with and listen to. ArtsJournal’s own Doug McLennan moderated, and as usual did a sharp, savvy job. Note that this panel had nothing to do with the blog that preceded it. We spent one session talking about big issues in classical music, and the second trying to identify bits of music Doug played for us. Anne and I also picked a couple, but Doug’s were the most interesting—really killer choices, that stretched our knowledge and instincts. We were joined by David Zinman, Aspen’s music director, and composer George Tsontakis, and each of us had our moments of clarity, and then our total blank spots. Someone from the audience gets the prize, though, for identifying a violin concerto—plainly American, with moments that sounded like country fiddling, but so varied and so quickly changeable that none of us had the slightest clue who could have written it—as something by Lukas Foss. (One of the only composers, George noted, after the truth had been revealed, who wrote in a large enough variety of styles to have covered every kind of music in this piece.)

A good weekend—and the larger but much more quiet conference the week before covered some important ground, especially when it talked about changes in the way orchestras are going to choose new musicians. Merely playing well won’t be good enough; future orchestra members might have to be good colleagues, good chamber music players, good spokespeople to the community, and capable participants in management. How will music schools have to change to prepare their students for all that?

Plus much more, of course. I learned, among much else, that the Thornton School of Music at USC has some pathbreaking programs. Among much else, they team chamber ensembles with students studying the business side of music, with results in one case that included a CD release and a tour of Japan. They also don’t have music theorists—or music theory teachers—on their staff. Instead, composers teach their theory courses, and every student has to compose. Their pieces are recorded, and in one story I heard, a freshman proudly sent the CD with her piece on track 18 to all her relatives as Christmas gifts. This was someone who’d never composed before. Sounds like Thornton is a very creative place.

(Full disclosure. Originally I wrote that George Tsontakis identified the Foss concerto. But I’d remembered wrongly, and had to be reminded that it was someone from the audience.)

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