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“Nothing Left to Lose” — My First Orchestra Job, etc.

I was delighted today to join my friend Donato Cabrera for his latest “MusicWise” youtube show. We talked about Dvorak and Revueltas, about PostClassical Ensemble’s More than Music” films – and about my own professional odyssey, which I traced back to feeling “disillusioned” and “betrayed” as a young New York Times music critic in the 1970s. 

After that, as I told Donato, I wrote Understanding Toscanini “as an act of therapy.” At the end of that once notorious book, I identified Harvey Lichtenstein’s Brooklyn Academy of Music as a place with a hungry and sophisticated audience – a place where classical music might be renewed. Harvey took me out to lunch and informed that the Brooklyn Philharmonic, in residence at BAM, had lost over two-third of its subscribers in two years. Would I be interested in taking over? I said yes – providing I could do what I wanted. And what is it you want? Harvey asked. Having had the experience, at the 92ndStreet Y, of curating cross-disciplinary festival programing, I said that was what I wanted. Harvey said OK – he had nothing left to lose.

So that was how I happened to wind up CEO of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and turned it into a humanities institution with NEH funding (and tripled BPO audiences). Donato wanted to know more and I told him about the origins, at BAM, of my first “Dvorak and America” program, based on recent research by the music historian Michael Beckerman. 

I met Donato when he was assistant conductor of the New Jersey Symphony. This was post-BAM, when Larry Tamburri, the adventurous NJSO CEO (and someone who reads books), entrusted me with an annual winter festival. One such festival was “Dvorak and America.” I then had occasion to meet with some NJSO musicians, including Donato. I inflicted my usual Dvorak quiz, playing a little of the F major Humoresque and asking people to guess the composer. The point of this quiz is that the invariable guess is Gershwin – which proves my point that the American Dvorak sounds “American.” Donato ruined the quiz by becoming the first person ever to correctly guess “Dvorak.” He’s now music director of the California Symphony and the Las Vegas Philharmonic. We’ve collaborated twice in Las Vegas: on “Dvorak and America” and “Copland and Mexico.”

The Copland/Mexico program ignited one of the most memorable post-concert discussions in which I’ve taken part, starting off with a woman raising her hand so eagerly she could not be ignored. “I HATED it!” was what she needed to say. Donato and I were delighted. Forty-five minutes later, when we disbanded, she came to the lip of the stage to talk some more with Roberto Kolb, who had joined us from Mexico City as the world’s leading Revueltas scholar. Others in the audience (as recalled today by Donato) were exceptionally moved to encounter a symphonic program extolling the revolutionary political art — on the far left — of 1930s Mexico.

Our chat is punctuated by some of my favorite excerpts from PCE’s recent “More than Music” films, with their extraordinary visual presentations by Peter Bogdanoff. “Groundbreaking,” says Douglas McLennan of Arts Journal. The next MTM film, on Bernard Herrmann, streams this coming Friday.  Here’s a glimpse: William Sharp on playing “Walt Whitman” for the 1944 radio play “Whitman,” hypnotically scored by Herrmann.


  1. Kypros Markou says

    Enjoyed and appreciated everything.
    Now, I will listen to Dvorak’s F major Humoresque and try Io imagine I don’t know who wrote it.
    Thank you.

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