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AT THE BARRICADES: The Arts in the Age of Trump

You’re looking at a photo of me – the old guy with the beard – being thanked by students at East Lake High School, a semi-rural public high school on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas. Five hundred East Lake students had just spent 90 minutes watching and listening to a presentation sampling Redes (1935) – the iconic film of the Mexican Revolution, a tale of exploited fishermen who unite and revolt. As readers of this blog know, Redes is an obsession of mine. However little acknowledged, it’s one of the peak examples, in all cinema, of great … [Read more...]

Are Orchestras Better than Ever? Why Riccardo Muti is Wrong

Are orchestras better than ever?  Riccardo Muti thinks so. Recently, dedicating a bust of Fritz Reiner at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, he said: “The level of the orchestras in the world – especially in the seventies and eighties -- has gone up everywhere.” What is Muti talking about? I suppose he’s applying the criterion of perfection. Perfect intonation, perfect ensemble. What kind of criterion is that? Thanks to the exceptional WWFM The Classical Network, I’ve been able to respond to this parochial claim at three hours length, in colloquy … [Read more...]

Music and the National Mood

PostClassical Ensemble – the DC chamber orchestra I co-founded a dozen years ago – produced a concert at the Washington National Cathedral last Saturday night that seemed to address the national mood. These are fractious times – times in which the arts can acquire a special pertinence. Times in which music can be a provocation or a balm. We titled our program “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” It intermingled spirituals with religious arias by Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Our inspiration was the example of Harry Burleigh – who more than anyone … [Read more...]

Trifonov Plays Shostakovich

No other music so instantly evokes a sense of place as that of Dmitri Shostakovich. When Daniil Trifonov launched Shostakovich’s E minor Prelude at Carnegie Hall last week, the bleakness and exigency of Stalin’s Russia at once chilled the huge space. The Shostakovich affect can seem exotic or native, according to circumstance. I would say it today complements that part of the national mood concentrated in the Northeastern United States and 3,000 miles away on the West Coast. Trifonov offered a substantial Shostakovich set: five of the 24 … [Read more...]

Brendel and Schubert

This weekend's "Wall Street Journal" includes my review of Alfred Brendel's new essay collection, "Music, Sense, and Nonsense," as follows: It is axiomatic, to some, that music speaks for itself. But there are musicians who both perform and speak for music. In this country, Leonard Bernstein was surely the most influential exemplar. Bernstein’s landmark campaign for the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, which he greatly helped to canonize beginning in 1959, included popular sermons on television and in print. But Bernstein’s 1960 Young Peoples’ … [Read more...]

The Future of Orchestras Part IV: Attention-Span

A colleague in Music History at a major American university reports that it has become difficult to teach sonata form because sonata forms transpire over 15 minutes and more.  This topic – shrinking attention-span -- is obviously not irrelevant to the future of orchestras. My most memorable TV interview took place half a dozen years ago in a Southern city of moderate size. I was producing “Dvorak and America” for the local orchestra, assisted by Kevin Deas. We were roused from our hotel in the wee hours of the morning and conveyed to a … [Read more...]

Virgil Thomson: Guerilla Tactics and Slapdash Judgments

In today' s Wall Street Journal I review the new Library of America Virgil Thomson compendium. Here's what I had to say: The heyday of American classical music occurred around the turn of the 20th century, when most everyone ­involved assumed that American composers would create a native canon and that American orchestras in 2016 would play mainly American music. This vibrant fin de siècle moment also marked the apex of classical-music journalism in the United States. In New York, the most estimable critics were W.J. Henderson of the Times, … [Read more...]

The Future of Orchestras, Part III: Bruckner, Palestrina, and the Rolling Stones

                    “Would the New York Philharmonic sing Palestrina?” – the question posed by my previous blog – arose from a recent performance of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony in which the musicians did precisely that. The conductor was James Ross, whose University of Maryland Orchestra breaks the mold. Jim writes: “’Sense of occasion’ is absolutely the goal; that there are unique reasons why a certain program is taking place with this orchestra in this … [Read more...]

The Future of Orchestras (Cont’d): Would the Philharmonic Sing Palestrina?

    When Doug McClennan persuaded me to start blogging in 2006, I was a newcomer to electronic media and also a skeptic. I read books. It write long. I do not tweet and rarely check Facebook. Frankly, the consolidated thread of considered comments elicited by my mega-blog on the future of orchestras has taken me by surprise. These are informed comments from inside the orchestra world. (I trashed a few that were not.) I have also been deluged with emails whose content must remain private. They, too, register the thoughts, … [Read more...]

STORM WARNINGS: THE FUTURE OF ORCHESTRAS

                                                                      -- I -- I recently spent the three consecutive weekends speaking at conferences pertinent to the fate of America’s orchestras. The first, at Grinnell College, was sponsored by the American Association of Liberal Arts Colleges. The topic was reforming music curricula. The second, at the University of South Carolina, was a “summit” sponsored by the College Music Society. The topic was the same. The third, in Baltimore, was the annual conference of the League of American … [Read more...]

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