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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 … [Read more...]

Dvorak and the American Experience of Race — An Antidote to “Checkbox Diversity” “I know there has been a lot of discussion about how we can make a difference by programing one African-American composition per concert,” says Lorenzo Candelaria, the incoming dean of Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.   “I call that ‘checkbox diversity.’ What I’ve found to be far more impactful is to take a piece and really live with it for a while, sit with it, talk about it  -- contextualized programing. I’d think that would be a far … [Read more...]

On “Wagnerism” by Alex Ross

In this weekend’s “Wall Street Journal” I review Alex Ross’s important new book “Wagnerism.” I write in part: Great works of art are so powerfully imagined that their intent and expression mold to changing human circumstances. But the operas of Richard Wagner are arguably unique in this regard: No other creative genius in the Western canon so unerringly holds up a mirror to time and place. . . . Thomas Mann’s claim that Wagner “was probably the greatest talent in the entire history of art” cannot be dismissed as hyperbole. Alex … [Read more...]

“Porgy” and Race — continued Conrad L. Osborne, whose incisive critical scalpel cuts through present-day distractions and obfuscations with magnificent precision, has written another must-read blog: “The Racial Moment and Opera.” He begins by revisiting the memorable “Porgy Exchange” in this space – the PostClassical Ensemble zoom chat in which Conrad, George Shirley, and Kevin Deas opined that it makes artistic sense for gifted white baritones to undertake the demanding role of Porgy in Gershwin’s imperishable … [Read more...]

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...]

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