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Jon Stewart and Moral Fire

As I have occasion to remark in my new book Moral Fire, moral passion is a phenomenon little glimpsed in public life nowadays, unless you happen to be a devotee of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Typically, moral passion as purveyed by politicians and the “media” is opportunistic and shallow, if not wholly counterfeit. My book celebrates practitioners of moral passion in late 19th century America, when it was more mattered than today. More specifically, I explore four individuals for whom the notion that culture – that is, music, … [Read more...]

In Praise of Moral Fire

My new book Moral Fire is praised in today’s Boston Globe by Jeremy Eichler for its "elegant and warmly sympathetic" portrait of Henry Higginson, who invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony. I’m fortunate to have my book reviewed by Jeremy – and Boston is fortunate to be the rare American city with a classical-music press of stature. I visit Boston in early October to give the Elson Lecture at Harvard on rethinking orchestras as purveyors of the humanities – that’s 5:15 pm Tuesday October 9. And the next day, also at Harvard, I … [Read more...]

Mixing Art and Music (cont’d): Mixing Food and Music

Now that the always enterprising Anne Midgette has posted my blog objecting to live Bach cello suites imposed on visitors to the Corcoran Gallery, I’ve realized that I failed to indicate that this was not a museum concert. Rather, the cellist was offered as an embellishment to dining in the atrium. Johann Sebastian was enlisted to cheerfully accompany both Frederick Church’s “Niagara” and the consumption of soup, sandwiches, and pasta. As it happens, the day after I attempted to ponder “Niagara” at the Corcoran I had lunch at DC’s … [Read more...]

Mixing Art and Music — An Open Letter to the Corcoran Gallery

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE DIRECTOR OF THE CORCORAN GALLERY Dear Mr. Bollerer: As someone who writes frequently about the Gilded Age, I’ve long been eager to visit the Corcoran Gallery to study your most iconic painting: Frederick Church’s “Niagara.” I was recently in DC and seized the opportunity, arriving one Sunday in the late morning only to discover a cellist in the atrium playing movements from the Bach cello suites. The atrium is a resonant space and the cello was loudly audible in the galleries. A painting summons thought and … [Read more...]

Teaching Music Across the Curriculum

Cross-disciplinary education is in fashion right now, but I have the impression it’s more honored in the breach than the observance, at least insofar as music is concerned. My vantage point is limited but informative. As readers of this blog know, I have for years espoused using the story of Dvorak in America to sneak the humanities into Social Studies and History classrooms by the back door. I have learned a few things in the process. One is that the usual obstacle is ostensibly curricular: learning standards and standardized syllabi … [Read more...]

A Message for Young Musicians and Old Orchestras

I was recently entrusted with delivering the graduation address for the School of Music at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. I wound talking about the future of orchestras. My larger point was that this is a moment for young musicians – and not so young institutions – to hone their sense of mission. Here’s what I had to offer: A lot of the writing that I’ve done over the past 25 years has explored the story of classical music in America in its most dynamic period – the late nineteenth century. Here’s a vignette: the … [Read more...]

“Moral Fire”

I have a new book, just published: Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle. Here’s a sampling: “If the Met’s screaming Wagnerites standing on chairs in the 1890s are in fact unthinkable today, it is partly because we mistrust high feeling. Our children avidly specialize in vicarious forms of electronic interpersonal diversion. Our laptops and televisions ensnare us in a surrogate world that shuns all but facile passions; only Jon Stewart and Bill Maher share moments of moral outrage disguised as comedy.” My portraits … [Read more...]

San Francisco’s American Mavericks

I review the San Francisco Symphony's remarkable "American Mavericks" festival in the current Times Literary Supplement (UK) as follows: There is a type of American creative genius whose originality and integrity correlate with refusing to finish their education in Europe. Herman Melville and Walt Whitman are writers of this type. In American music, Charles Ives is the paramount embodiment. The unfinished in Ives is crucial to his affect. Emerson, whom Ives revered, put it this way in his poem “Music”:”’Tis not in the high stars alone . . . … [Read more...]

Schubert Uncorked

For a variety of reasons, raw spontaneity is less common at symphonic performances nowadays than in the nineteenth century and before. In the days when they were also composers, performers were of course more prone to improvise. In the days before recordings and airplanes, there was no centripetal norm for interpretation. PostClassical Ensemble’s “Schubert Uncorked” in DC last weekend was the least predictable concert I have ever produced. At the close of the dress rehearsal the same afternoon, we had little real idea how the evening concert … [Read more...]

Orchestral Summitry

The recent “Orchestral Summit” at the University of Michigan was a labor of love on the part of Mark Clague of the university’s Musicology faculty. Mark is a tireless advocate of conciliation and consensual change in a field wracked by frustration and dissent. The conference had its ups and downs. I was especially impressed by the gravitas and honesty sustained by a panel of conservatory-level educators, alert to the need for fresh thought in preparing young musicians for a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Peter Witte, who heads the … [Read more...]

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