Catching up again

Here’s something I’m very happy to announce: I’ll be giving the commencement address at the Eastman School of Music next month. This warms my heart, because I’ve had a very happy time teaching at Eastman for the past three years (I teach a quick course in the future of classical music, taught in January, February, and March). And I’ve bonded each year with my students.

But I’m also  honored to get such recognition from a major mainstream music school. And not just honored — I’m thrilled to see my ideas taken so seriously.

If you’d like to hear me speak, I’m featured in a podcast produced for APAP, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, whose annual conference I spoke at, on a panel about technology. I’m not talking about technology here, but more generally on the thoughts in my “Serious Problem” post, about the arts and popular culture. I answer questions from Ana Maria Harkins, who was a delight to talk to. (If my Eastman speech is recorded, I’ll want to put a link to the recording here.)


North Korea. I posted about the New York Philharmonic’s visit (here, here, and  here.) before it happened, but was distracted by work and travel when the visit took place. I watched the Pyongyang concert on TV, and thought it was a triumph, the music included: Maazel and the orchestra played the “New World” Symphony with real power.

As for the meaning of the visit, I thought that was a triumph, too. Here’s North Korea, a country where everyone is told — over, over, over, over, and over again — that the U.S. is an evil aggressor, dedicating to destroying North Korea. (I don’t have to agree with everything our government does to get steamed, as a patriot, by those lying attacks.) And suddenly, on a concert stage in Pyongyang, and on North Korean TV, here’s an American orchestra, playing gorgeous music as the guest of the very regime that makes those charges. The cognitive dissonance of this — the implicit contradiction to so much that Kim Jong-il insists on — has to open cracks in the North Korean armor.


And the Pulitzer Prize! I was thrilled to see David Lang win, and not just because I’ve been friendly with him for years, and like him tremendously. And not just because I like the piece he won for. (Which, thanks to Carnegie Hall, you can listen to on the web.) What warms my heart beyond all that is that David thought he’d taken chances with this piece, and that he himself loves it so much. So what could be better? You see yourself (as David does) as someone outside the classical mainstream, and then you win a huge mainstream prize for a piece that means the world to you. I just about jumped up in the air when I heard the news.

Plus Bob Dylan, a great artist if there ever was one. But the Pulitzer citation was lame. Dylan was honored, it was announced, for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” This is empty boilerplate (and clogged with too many words). There’s a much better phrase in the wonderful Martin Scorcese Dylan documentary, No Direction Home. When Dylan, in the early ’60s, becomes a kind of icon, singing songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” which seemed to speak for a new generation, someone who’d known him in Greenwich Village folk clubs before he was famous talked about it this way (I’m paraphrasing): “Bobby sang what everyone was thinking but didn’t know how to say.” Why couldn’t the Pulitzers have said that?


Two more recent sightings (of me, I mean). First in Pittsburgh, on April 4,when I led discussions for the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society, before and after a really strong concert by the Belcea Quartet. They played a Haydn quartet (Op. 20, No. 4) and two quartets by Britten, the second and third. Haydn, of course, is always a delight, with a surprise coming every moment. But it was Britten who really got to me. I’d never heard those pieces live, and they haunted my memory, especially the third. One topic that came up in discussions (my job is to get the audience talking) was ethnicity — what it might mean, for instance, that Britten was British. But when the third quartet started, I thought I heard the sound of quite a different ethnic group, a very exclusive one. This was music from a country half of which is in another world. Fellow citizens of that land might be late Beethoven, late Mahler, and late Shostakovich.

Then, last weekend, I took part in a private conference at Princeton University about research on orchestras — what kind of research has been done, and what kind could or should be done. In attendance: scholars, funders, professional orchestra people, and consultants. I gave a presentation on the artistic future of orchestras, which took off from my post here about the Wordless Music orchestra concert in New York, at which you  could see and feel the emergence of the young audience that the classical music world has been looking for. I’ll try to pull a summary of my remarks together, and post it here.


Finally, I’ll be speaking tomorrow about the future of classical music to a gathering of music directors from public radio stations, hosted by New York’s public radio station, WNYC. I’m glad that WNYC thinks I’m on their wavelength. I certainly think that they’re on mine.

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  1. Ken Nielsen says

    Wow! Busy life Greg.

    I congratulate you on your discovery of the Britten Quartets. Wonderful stuff. People don’t seem to now where to place Britten. A few of his operas are in the repertoire and the War Requiem appears occasionally (though probably not in the US) and that’s it.

    The quartets are wonderful (the Sorrel Quartet has a great recording) and the cello suites are also excellent.

    I’m a particular fan of the operas, and would love — my busy life permitting! — to see all of them onstage. Well, come to think of it, I’ve seen most of them, but would love a chance to see Gloriana and Owen Wingrave (a piece with a wonderful theme — Britten’s outsider feelings and his pacifism come together).

    The War Requiem does get done in the US. The musicians in the Belcea Quartet said that the quartets are more or less standard repertoire in Britain, but that Britten is barely played in Europe.

    When I studied composition at Yale in the early ’70s, Britten was a non-composer. In the eyes, that is, of my teachers and fellow students. Too tonal. I learned otherwise when I saw Death in Venice at the Met. It just about overwhelmed me, and helped to free my mind from the conventional prejudices of the composition world back then.