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The Artist and the State: Mexico and “Engineers of the Soul” Advocating a more “civilized” United States – and simultaneously fighting a cultural Cold War -- John F. Kennedy implausibly proclaimed that only “free artists” functioning in “free societies” could produce important art. In the same breath, Kennedy denied the legitimacy of political art. Delivering words written by Arthur Schlesinger, he maintained: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. … [Read more...]

Are Orchestras “Better than Ever”? — What Not to Tell a Young Musician Two summers ago I had occasion to spend a week with gifted high school musicians at the Brevard Music Festival – an idyllic cultural retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. Jason Posnock, Brevard’s artistic administrator, is not only a superb violinist but a reader and thinker and believer in humanities-infused programing and pedagogy. Thanks to Jason, I was entrusted with a multi-media Bernstein Centenary program that explored Bernstein’s thoughts … [Read more...]

“Redes” Lives! — The Iconic Film of the Mexican Revolution and what it says to us today In his most important speech about the place of culture in the national experience, delivered at Amherst College mere weeks before his death, President John F. Kennedy said: “In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not ‘engineers of the soul.’ It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society -- in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where … [Read more...]

The Arts in America — Is the Pandemic a Perfect Storm? In 1987, my Understanding Toscanini was the most discussed, most reviled book about classical music to have appeared in recent memory. Its subtitle was “How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music.” I used Arturo Toscanini -- for decades, the most famous and influential classical musician in the US, hailed as a “priest of culture” and “prophet of enlightenment” – as an illustration and metaphor for the post-World War I failure … [Read more...]

Porgy and the White Police Lawrence Tibbett sings Porgy (1935) Though a prominent British reviewer of what became the hit Met production of Porgy and Bess called Gershwin’s landmark 1935 opera “a period piece,” it loudly resounds today. Consider the first act confrontation between a white detective and a black community.  “Race is critical to Gershwin’s conception,” observes the Gershwin scholar Mark Clague in the most recent “PostClassical” webcast, pursuing a Gershwin thread originating with our film “The … [Read more...]

The New Deal, the Arts, and Race — and Today FDR’s New Deal included the Works Progress Administration, which generously supported the arts in unprecedented ways. Employing writers, composers, visual artists, and performers via Art, Music, and Theater projects, the WPA was a massive employment agency -- and the closest Washington had come to emulating European arts subsidies.  The Music Project alone gave 225,000 free or popularly-priced performances, attended by 150 million people, many of whom had been strangers to live concert music.  At … [Read more...]

Porgy Takes a Knee — “Porgy and Bess” and the American Experience of Race “It’s interesting that Gershwin chose as his protagonist a person who’s on his knees. ‘Taking a knee’ has never been more relevant.” That’s Kevin Deas, a distinguished exponent of Gershwin’s Porgy, talking a few days ago on PostClassical Ensemble’s “Porgy and Bess Roundtable” zoomchat alongside another eminent African-American singer: George Shirley. “I’ve been thinking about it the last couple of days,” Deas continued. “There is an automatic sense of empathy with someone who is on their … [Read more...]

The Gershwin Threat/The Gershwin Moment Paul Rosenfeld, whose writings on American modernist composers were once regarded as insightful and prophetic, detected in George Gershwin the Russian Jew “a weakness of spirit, possibly as a consequence of the circumstance that the new world attracted the less stable types.” Rosenfeld (whose own lineage was German Jewish) also wrote of Gershwin: “His compositions drowse one in a pink world of received ideas and sentiments. The Rhapsody in Blueis circus-music, pre-eminent in the … [Read more...]

Why Did Shostakovich Join the Party? One of the most controversial acts in the ever controversial life of Dmitri Shostakovich was his tortured decision in 1960 to join the Communist Party – a decision that has variously been portrayed as cowardly, politically pressured, or basically volitional. It is not mentioned in Testimony (1979) – the composer’s influential memoirs, collaboratively written with Solomon Volkov. But Volkov offered his own view, for the first time, in a Zoom chat the other day produced by PostClassical … [Read more...]

Music in Wartime Between 1942 and 1945, the three pre-eminent Russian composers wrote music responding to World War II. These responses differ in fascinating and revealing ways. Both Dmitri Shostakovich and Serge Prokofiev were eyewitnesses to the war; Shostakovich in fact endured the beginning of the siege of Leningrad before being evacuated east along with Prokofiev and other eminent Soviet artists. Prokofiev’s explosive Seventh Piano Sonata (1942), the best-known of his three “War Sonatas,” evokes … [Read more...]

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