Monthly Archives: June 2007

If you were wondering if there is such a thing as "talent"

According to his website, Alex Prior has taken up the cello, and is “keen to reach the level needed to play Elgar’s concerto” (the photo of him with a cello looks like it’s a few years old, so he may be on to Shostakovich by now). He already is a much-performed composer, pianist, French horn player, mandolinist, and growing celebrity. He’s been written up many times in print, and Alex Ross and Elaine Fine, who brought him to my attention, recently blogged him.

Oh, and he sings a bit. Two years ago, when he was 12:


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A coincidence?

Or something more?

Two pianists I know and admire, combine improvisation and classical music in concerts on the same day, one in Boston, the other in Greencastle. What are the odds?


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Ah, webcams

“What can I do with a music degree?” we music teachers get asked all the time. “What if I can’t get a job as a musician and end up a janitor?” What’s wrong with being a janitor, except the pay? I like all the janitors I know at DePauw, and have socialized with a couple of them. My janitor friends are fun to hang out with, and they don’t blather on about Foucault or class struggles or the crisis in classical music or grade inflation or any of the other bullshit (maybe that will raise my “R” to a “NC-17”) we faculty types, who love nothing more than listening to ourselves overintellectualize, do.

But I digress. It turns out that thanks to hidden webcams, being a janitor can lead to as big a break as winning a major competition. Interestingly, working as a janitor paid better than teaching private lessons, at least back home in Poland. Probably less frustrating, too. I imagine he’ll be able to plenty for lessons now, if he wants to teach.

Scads of hits about him on Google.

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Eight Days in June

The Detroit Symphony tries something really interesting. Chris O’Reilly playing transcriptions of Radiohead? Plus Beethoven 5 and other genres mixed in? Sounds cool.

Great looking website. Interesting YouTube video right there on the site, and here’s a Playbill Arts story about it. I wish I had heard about this earlier, I’d have made a trip up there.

This looks like an important part of the future.

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57 years to go?

Well, I hope I’ll get hitched before I’m 105. But maybe it’s not too late to take up singing. After all, this guy made his Met debut at 84. (via Alex Ross.)

And talk about a cradle robber! His partner is 38 years younger. A 67-year-old must seem like just a kid to a 105-year-old.

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Nevada, Maybe; DePauw, I Doubt It . . .

I don’t think our administration or trustees would ever let us follow suit. We’d probably shoot each other up in a faculty meeting.

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Sandow and His "Inconvenient Truths"

Greg Sandow’s been at the ASOL conference and blogging like crazy on a separate blog set up for it. Now he’s back, blogging about his blogging, and the frustrations of being a privately thanked “provacateur” yet feeling more lke a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Of course, maybe I’m just too extreme. Maybe I’m out beyond left field, raving about global warming, when all we’re seeing is a hot day.

Or maybe he is, as I describe him, the Al Gore of classical music: a prophet pointing out irrefutable signs of a crisis, “inconvenient truths” those in the establishment want to rationalize away.

Of course, it’s the present structure of the commercial (if officially nonprofit) classical music establishment that is melting like the polar ice caps. There are many young people who love playing classical music. I’m actually all for a world with more well-trained musicians who are happy to be amateurs and dual-career professionals.

One of Greg’s main points, that the mainstream institutions need to learn to understand the young potential audience if they are gong to bring them in, seems to go constantly unheeded. But some of the mainstream institutions are going to be like the mainstream churches who, rather than make substantial change, have adjusted to a life of downsizing.

Much of what so many people dislike about traditional classical concerts (be quiet, don’t move freely, don’t respond, restrain yourself) is exactly what bores people to tears at religious services. Spiritually, I have a Sufi-like approach which is deeply interfaith. I feel comfortable just about anywhere there is real spiritual energy. And I hardly ever go to church. And it strikes me that the decline in attendance at mainline churches and mainline classical music institutions seem to have paralleled each other.

I’m not attracted to simplistic, pop-music, evangelical megachurches, either, where there often seems to be a shallow, if powerful emotionalism, combined with simplistic and often non-inclusive theology.

Some mainline churches have “traditional” and “contemporary” services, which seem to work for them. Pops concerts seem still to be aimed at an older, more entertainment-minded, audience. Do the old institutions really need to make dramatic changes in their manner of programming to survive? Can they do so and not lose their identities? Does the end of a bigger audience justify the means of compromising the traditional format?

And would the world be a better or worse place with a smaller professional music establishment and more “regular people” playing classical music at home and in small, intimate concerts? If a some symphony orchestras have to downsize or fold, is that the end of the world? For those who work there, of course, but for society as a whole? The symphony orchestra is a nineteenth-century invention, as are the concert halls in which they play. How long can a mammothly-expensive institution born in one culture survive into a hugely different subsequent culture?


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With a jaunty hat

from Cello Centered, a cello blog new to me.

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The Woes of Chamber Music

. . . are discussed by Anne Midgette in Sunday’s New York Times. She writes

MY epiphany came when I told a friend I was going to a chamber music concert, and she — well-educated, well-heeled, operagoing — made a throwing-up gesture into her hand.

For Gil Morgenstern, a violinist and concert presenter, the epiphany came when an acquaintance informed him that the two most boring words in the English language were “chamber music.”

Our reactions? Shock. Denial. Anger.

In short, stages of mourning. Because these moments were startling confrontations with a reality neither of us had realized: that for many people, chamber music is dead.

Many people are worried about the so-called “death of classical music.” I’m not worried about it dying; I think that professionally-performed classical music is in the midst of big change, and that large, tradition-bound institutions need to make changes that embrace new cultural realities.

Greg Sandow gets frustrated, sometimes even testy, with those of us who insist that music education, especially hands-on instrumental playing, were key to the past of classical music and will be necessary to its healthy to a healthy future. He thinks most often in terms of the short and mid-term needs of classical-music professionals and institutions.

I’m more interested in the future of classical music-making, including amateur. Well, especially amateur music making. Our culture has turned “music” into something you buy and listen to passively. There’s a small class of music producers creating these music-products-for-sale. Less people are buying,

Music as an activity. Music as self-expression. Music as social interraction. Music as celebration of community. I’m much more interested in that. Because having more people,
“everyday” people, engaged in the process of making music and making art is one of the things that can heal a sick society.


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Elaine Fine on Alex Ross

Elaine Fine makes some excellent observations in response to Alex Ross’s New Yorker piece on his whirlwind trip hearing the Indianapolis, Nashville, and Birmingham Symphonies.

She’s quite right, especially about the notion that people get a job in one of these orchestras and then “move up” to another orchestra. Not only are there few positions open, but the audition process itself is enormously expensive and emotionally wrenching. Once a young player wins a permanent seat in a fine orchestra, becomes part of a community, etc., the motivation to go through the horrors of the process diminishes considerably. If you have a strong enough sense of your own worth that you don’t need the prestige of being in an ever more prestigious orchestra, or being a principal player, it can turn out that playing in a wonderful orchestra in city like Indianapolis, where the cost of living is low compared to New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, can make for a wonderful life.

A former student of mine is now the Associate Principal cellist in a southern orchestra. I had assumed that once he got that job, he’d be using it as a stepping stone for a more prestigious one. He’s not trying for other jobs, though; he’s happy where he is. He’s probably happier where he is than he would be living in a big, industrial northern city. And he has no desire to put himself through the audition process again.

The exciting news for orchestra lovers is not that terrific young people graduate from conservatories, spend a year or two in a regional orchestra, and then move on. It’s that terrific young people, qualified to play in any orchestra in the world, graduate from conservatories, join a regional orchestra, and spend a life there making music.


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