Four personalities

I'm preparing a post about the culture of orchestras, one that I fear some people won't like. Orchestral musicians, especially. Which will be ironic, if true, because they're the ones who know best that what i'll be saying is true. So there's a teaser. To prepare for that post, I want to share something one of my Juilliard students wrote this past semester, which I'm quoting with her permission. I'd asked the class (in a takehome exam) to react to a blog post by Jade Simmons, a pianist who's on a crusade to help classical musicians be more … [Read more...]


Thanks, everyone, for all the comments on my recent posts, including those that disagree with me. I've responded to some, by commenting directly on the comments. So I won't address anything in detail here in the blog. But there are two threads, two motifs, in the comments that I think are worth mentioning.      Sports are simpleFirst -- because I said that sports fans know far more about how their team plays than classical music fans know about how orchestras play -- comes the notion that my comparison isn't valid, … [Read more...]


Just a little bagatelle, as a diversion...A few weeks ago, I saw the Kennedy Center's production of Follies, the great but difficult Stephen Sondheim show, a cult item among musicals if ever there was one. Not the world's most successful effort, the Kennedy Center show (though it's coming to Broadway). But it sent me back to the recording of the truly great live New York Philharmonic concert production of Follies, which happened in 1985. And which had as someone in the biz just observed on Facebook, had the most electric audience he'd ever … [Read more...]

Reasons for the silence

And now we get to the hard stuff. The questions that truly are difficult.Here's the first of them. Why -- given what I've said in my previous posts -- aren't orchestras subject (in public, or even very much in private) to detailed comparisons, revealing how well they play? I think there are four reasons. First: it would be hard to do anything with the information these comparisons would supply. Suppose you're on the board of an orchestra, and now -- because, magically, comparisons came your way -- you can't doubt that your … [Read more...]

Why my criteria matter

Continuing from my previous post, about applying criteria to measure how well orchestras play...Why should it matter, to measure orchestra quality in such detail?Because, to begin with, we for the most part discuss how well orchestras play only in the most general way. We have an idea, let's say, that Cleveland (or at least this used to be the belief) stands above most American orchestra. Or that Berlin might be the best orchestra in the world. But what exactly do we mean by that? Or we think that San Francisco, under MTT, stands very … [Read more...]

How well orchestras play: applying some criteria

[Forgot the links when I first posted this. Sorry!]In previous posts:How well, I asked, do our orchestras play? In my first post about that, I said that I thought this subject is -- to say the least -- curiously muted inside the orchestra world, and not adequately discussed in public outside it. I got some pushback on that (no surprise), which I'll address next week (though some of what I say in this post might clarify what I meant). And then, in a post Wednesday, I offered four criteria for judging how well an orchestra … [Read more...]

Measuring how well orchestras play

The story so far: In an interview with The Australian, about the Philadelphia bankruptcy, I said that -- just possibly -- a new orchestra with eager young musicians might surprise everyone by playing with more fire than an established group. This caused some commotion (as I noted in a post), and I thought I might talk more broadly about what I think is a difficult topic: how well orchestras play. So I started with a post about how this topic, rather strangely, I thought, isn't often discussed.  So now to continue. Maybe after this post, … [Read more...]

A difficult discussion

How well do orchestras play? That's a question I raised, implicitly, by asking whether a new, young orchestra might surprise us with some edge-of-the-seat commitment. Playing better, in some crucial ways, than the big established orchestras. But that's a long discussion, which -- at bottom --  invokes a larger question. How good, overall, are classical music performances these days? In my recent talk to graduating students at New England Conservatory, you'll find me urging them to play with more heart-melting passion, more edge of the … [Read more...]

What an honor!

I've had some urgent personal business, and couldn't immediately respond when Dixon -- the cartoonist at Adaptistration -- so wonderfully lampooned me. Adaptistration, as people in the business know, is Drew McManus's enterprising blog about the orchestra business. Enterprising enough, in fact, to have a cartoonist, and here's what Dixon did to me (follow the link for the original):I don't think I've ever been caricatured before. And, quite honestly, I wouldn't have thought I was well enough known to caricature. So I'm really quite … [Read more...]


Here's the cover of Soap Opera Weekly (captured with my iPhone), screaming in rage about the news that two iconic soaps were cancelled. Didn't matter that people weren't watching, that ratings for soaps have been sinking for a while. No, the cancellations were an outrage. Appalling. Irresponsible. We want our soaps!Am I the only one who might see an echo here of what we in the classical music world have been known to do, when (let's say) public radio cuts back on classical broadcasts? We're outraged! How dare they?And, often enough, we bypass … [Read more...]

That Cambridge debate — streaming now

That black-tie extravaganza at Cambridge University, the debate on young people in classical music that my side so decisively lost -- you can stream it now. Complete. Lots of fun, I think. It's a long stream -- nearly two hours. I'm at about 1'17" In black-tie splendor. And as I said in my post on the debate, the best thing about it was meeting my co-debaters, on both sides, and talking in the most friendly way about the issues we'd knocked around.  … [Read more...]

Mahler 9 — odd moment in the score

An oddball item here, maybe more interesting to musicians than others. Or maybe not! Your call. First a conundrum. Or at least a conundrum for me. Twenty-five bars from the end of the third movement, in a passage marked Presto, Mahler writes what follows for the three bassoons (in unison) and the tuba (joined, with a slightly different configuration of notes, by the contrabassoon and the bass clarinet). It's in the bass clef, of course:And then two bars later comes this, for the same instruments:So -- bassoonists, tuba players, … [Read more...]

Heart (broken) on its sleeve

This is a long post. But the part I'd most love you to see comes toward the end, where I quote a heartbreaking reminiscence of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder -- his songs about the death of children -- in his Ninth Symphony, which is about his own death. For me, it's profoundly moving to hear the two passages back to back, the music from the song simple and direct, its distant memory in the symphony already evaporated into a world that's not ours. So if you're not inclined to read  the whole post, scroll to the reminiscence. You'll see … [Read more...]