What I left out

Left out, that is, in my “new spirit” post, about the new openness I sense about classical music, in our wider culture. This was the second of my “where we stand” series, updating some ongoing thoughts on the future of, and really — I blew it.

Yes, what I said about a new freedom in using classical music in commercials — that’s all true. And it’s important. But I should have mentioned two other signs of a new wind blowing.

One of them is Alex Ross’s book. Here we have a serious book on classical music, and first, it’s not stuffy or pompous, or written for insiders. It brings classical music — and its history, and its meaning, and its vitality, and, maybe best of all, a vivid taste of the reasons one person loves it — alive. And it got noticed, to put it mildly, by the outside world, named (just for instance) one of the best books of the year by all sorts of prominent media places.

And, best of all, bought by all kinds of nonspecialists. I’d love to know what they thought, how many read it to the end, how many then went out to sample the music that it talks about. In one case, someone I know, well, she didn’t finish the book. But so what? There are books I don’t finish, and what could be more natural, when anyone tries a book on something they haven’t previously known about? Some stay the course, some don’t.

But is she more likely to try classical music — or anyway 20th century classical music — than she might have been before? I’m sure of it. If she’d been flipping channels, and came across the Met’s pretty stunning Salome, wouldn’t she have been thrilled, and felt a shock of recognition?


The second thing I forgot.was the BBC series Maestro — a reality show in which contestants tried to be conductors. Telecast last summer,  on BBC2, and an enourmous success, musically as well as with viewers (and endless press comments.)


It hasn’t been shown here, on BBC America, and sadly the video excerpts on the show’s homepage won’t play outside the UK. There are YouTube clips, though. I got the series on DVD from the BBC, and quite honestly, I was knocked out. In the first episode, the eight contestants — B-list (or below) celebrities, for instance David Soul, long ago of Starsky and Hutch — are given pieces to conduct, and get up in front of an orchestra with no preparation, to do their best.

Shown in the photo is Goldie, a British dance music guy, who doesn’t read music. The orchestra was clearly told to plaly exactly what the contestants indicated, and the results were a revelation to anyone who wonders what, in fact, a conductor does. One of the contestants, the lead singer from Blur, had such unstable tempo that the players lurched, abruptly speeding up and slowing down, with a train wreck each time. And yes, a professional orchestra, in a concert, will keep time on its own, but here anyone could see what the conductor is supposed to contribute, and what the orchestra contends with if he/she doesn’t do the job.

Then the contestants got five days’ intensive training, involving (among other things) instruction on beat patterns, general tips on musical leadership, and movement training, to free their bodies. Then they tried again. They were better, but one, a veteran TV personality, was so hopeless that he was sent home. Goldie, who can’t read music, was one of the two best, inspiring the orchestra to get excited (in “The Hall of the Mountain King,” from Peer Gynt), even if his beat needed work.

The judges were a substantial group. Sir Roger Norrington, Simone Young (a major career in Europe and Australia, even if she doesn’t conduct much in the US), a composer/cellist, and a bass player from an orchestra in Wales. They were lucid, lively, and often musically quite specific, so that even people who don’t know classical music — or, for that matter, classical music fans who aren’t tinsiders — could see what problems the aspiring conductors had.

Four judges: two men, two women. Which was yet another great thing about Maestro, though (which was terrific) not one word was said about it. Conducting wasn’t just, or wasn’t mainly, for boys. And, overall, classical music wasn’t just for specialists. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a presentation which so clearly showed how classical music works, so strongly gave tastes of why the music’s wonderful, so vividly conveyed love of the music, and yet did so without ever, not for an instant, putting classical music inside a frame of stuffiness or Art.

In later episodes, the contestants led choral music, opera, many things. I saw Goldie — despite his musciality — get tripped up by upbeats in a Mozart aria (one of Despina’s, from Cosi), and get called on it by the judges. (Though they might have been a little clearer in explaining what an upbeat is.) The winner (Sue Perkins, a British comedian) led a piece at one of the Proms concerts.

The show, for me, was a triumphant success, and yet another sign that a fresh new hopeful wind is blowing.

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  1. says

    I’ll definitely have to tell my Tivo to keep a watch out for Maestro.

    I am a nonspecialist who read Alex Ross’s book all the way through and loved it. My sister’s boyfriend — another nonspecialist — also just finished it and liked it a lot too.

    I’m a philosophy professor who has always been interested in music and became professionally interested because of an interest in the relationship between early twentieth century philosophy and modernist culture. I was delighted to see that Mann’s Doktor Faustus had played such a thematic role in the construction of parts of the book (it was reading Mann in grad school that had gotten me re-interested in classical music — and interested in twentieth century classical music for the first time — after having more or less abandoned it in college).

    I hadn’t been aware of the internet audio resources that Ross had over on his blog until after I’d read the whole book (since then I’ve listened to all the samples over there), but while I was reading it, it inspired me to find sheet music and try to plod along on my piano to some of the themes and motifs.

    And I’m still making my way through the extensive list of CD recommendations and the songs discussed: In the year since I read the book, I’ve been listening to a lot of Messaien, Stravinsky, Sibelius and the Second Viennese School (all of whom I knew at least a little about prior to reading the book), and also Reich, Poulenc, and Ligeti (none of whom I had really listened to at all).

    Oh, and it was reading the book and then exploring online that led me to a bunch of classical music blogs (such as this one), which I’ve been having a delightful time reading. Lots to learn, but also lots of odd resonances with our own fears of obsolescence over in philosophy and comparative literature . . .


    And here’s a question. Do you think you’re an atypical reader because you (very gamely; good for you) played through some of the music on the piano? I’m not saying this in the least to denigrate your response, which speaks for itself, whether you play the piano or not. But is it possible that you’re more at least a touch more open to the book because you play?

    I suspect that the answer is no, which I mean as a great compliment to the book. But I’d be curious to read your view.

    And as for people who once studied classical music…one of my Eastman students floated the speculation that many younger people who once studied classical music were actually turned off by their training. Too distant, too focused on technical analysis, too many rules, not human enough. Comments, anyone? Especially from people who once studied classical music, but now don’t work at it professionally.

  2. Jonathan says

    Glad you’ve referred to Maestro on here Greg,

    It really was a bold move and a very successful one over here. Most noticeable on this end was the evolution of perspective that occurred within the classical music industry in reaction to the show: There was so much skepticism to begin with, but once we’d all seen a couple of episodes (and I include myself in this change of heart) there was a general thumbs-up for all the reasons you give above.

    Plus, it gave a really good ‘in’ to talking about music at dinner parties – not that I don’t try to avoid such things 😉

    Jonathan works in the music business in London. Thanks for the support! Anne and I were in the UK on vacation when Maestro aired, and we read about it in the press. But we didn’t want to watch it — too much like work. Then I got curious to know what it was like, and got the DVDs.

    And I don’t minimize having something to talk about at dinner parties. I’ve been at dinner parties when conversation stopped dead when I said what I do for a living. Not at soul there — and I’m talking about dinner parties with smart and cultured people — knew anything about classical music, and so they didn’t think they knew what they could say to me.

  3. says

    I dont like the Alex Ross book, I’m actually kind of surprised that you did. It struck me, (after about 7 minutes of reading in the bookstore,) as the kind of easy intellectually lackluster treatment given to a complex tradition in order to sell it. Im not convinced THAT is what the canon of “classical” works needs…I recently rediscovered Lydia Goehr’s “Imaginary Museum….” book which, I think, addresses much more serious issues in a deeper way: how the discourse of “works” lacks worldliness ‘cuz it obsesses over keeping itself autonomous from the “extramusical.” THIS is the legacy of “classical music” we’re stuck with…the uptown bubbles.

    ps. glad you’re back blogging!

    Thanks for the ps!

    Alex’s book has an important role to play, and I’m not sure it’s fair to ask it to provide revelations for people who know the material already. But I’d absolve it of any intention to sell anything. It — and Alex — couldn’t be more sincere.

    I agree with you about Lydia’s book. The first third or so of it is going to be rough going for anyone not up on the debates about the philosophy of music, but once past that, the book just soars. (And in fact Lydia is both trenchant and brilliant in the first part. It’s just that most readers, I fear, won’t be able to keep up with her.) She does exactly what you say — upend one of the most cherished, most protected, most idealized tenets of classical music’s ideology. Which then helps restore the act of classical music-making to the ranks of normal human activity, rather than leaving it as the devotional act of a sacred priesthood.

  4. Stan Delles says

    How does one purchase the DVDs in the USA?

    I cannot find these on Amazon or the BBC website.

    Hi, Stan. You can’t buy the DVDs. I requested them from the BBC, as a member of the press. They were kind enough to oblige. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear! And I’m glad that

    Jonathan and I were convincing enough to make you want to see the show.

  5. Richard Mitnick says

    I am in the middle of Alex Ross’ book. I am using th4e book as a guide to buying music, which I do in mp3 at Amazon.

    So far, the composers who come to mind are Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Ives, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Virgil Thompson, and Duke Ellington.

    I am doing the same thing with a book I built out of the essays and interviews at American Mavericks (http://musicmavericks.publicradio.org). From this work, I bought Antheil, Varese, Partch and Nancarrow, all in mp3 at Amazon.


  6. Richard Mitnick says

    I am in the middle of Alex Ross’ book. I am using th4e book as a guide to buying music, which I do in mp3 at Amazon.

    So far, the composers who come to mind are Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Ives, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Virgil Thompson, and Duke Ellington.

    I am doing the same thing with a book I built out of the essays and interviews at American Mavericks (http://musicmavericks.publicradio.org). From this work, I bought Antheil, Varese, Partch and Nancarrow, all in mp3 at Amazon.


  7. says

    Happy New Year, Greg. I’m glad you got to DC for the party. Wish I had been there.

    I just finished the Ross, after having bogged down half-way through a couple of months ago. I found it a good, gossipy read, with lots to provoke and remind. It prompted me to launch a new listening project, in which I am re-examining Messiaen, Boulez, Schoenberg, Carter, and Partch.

    It reminded how important it is for me to do a profile on a local musician who was in the original Harry Partch Ensemble in California.

    It also prompted me to buy This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, who is a faculty member at McGill in Montreal. It is also a good read, but a bit rougher going for someone not interested in psycho-acoustics. Nevertheless, I learned lots from it, and it has given me some unique insights into teaching music and listening to music.

  8. Jeff says

    I managed to get the whole series through vigorous google searches and a lot of downloading. So far I am riveted, despite knowing the winner after looking for the show on youtube. I am a professional orchestra musician and I find it the whole thing so well done, engaging, captivating, and quite touching. Alex James is so clearly affected by the music and Goldie so determined and serious. Alex James obviously took a lot with him from the experience, as he is know doing this: http://www.classicfm.co.uk/sectional.asp?id=24338

    By the way (and I don’t mean to be a pedant) Alex James was the bass player in Blur, and Dominic Seldis (from the BBC Wales orchestra) is now Principal Bass of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. I am kind of hoping that Roger Norrington says something obnoxious about vibrato before the end 😉

    Thanks so much, Jeff. I’m glad that you — as a professional — like the show as much as I do. Is there any way you could share your way of downloading it? I’m sure others would love to do the same, but maybe there are many steps, so many that listing them would be impractical. You’re very resourceful!

    And thanks for the corrections, on the factual details. Better to get that stuff straight. Congrats to Dominic Seldis, too — that’s a major job he’s got.

    Maybe they’ll do a spinoff — “Maestro: The Early Music Connection.” With Norrington as a judge again, this time denouncing all the performance practice he let slide in the original show.