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Unanswered Question | Arts in the Age of Trump (Cont.)

Arts in the Age of Trump (Continued)

September 8, 2017 by Joe Horowitz

The Age of Trump has rapidly changed the American cultural landscape in many ways.

In the silo of classical music, there is suddenly a felt need to ask: What’s it for? Why are we doing this?

How can the arts affect social or political change?

How can concerts help us understand who we are as a nation? What we’ve been or want to become?

These questions are newer than they should be. So long as orchestras cling to traditional templates – the generic mixture of concerto and symphony; the mandatory soloist ; the deferent audience – they will rarely be satisfyingly addressed.

Because we program thematically and across the disciplines; because we regularly interface with schools, universities, and museums; because we invariably invite our audience to speak, PostClassical Ensemble has been tackling such questions for some time. And now that we’re  Ensemble-in-Residence at the Washington National Cathedral, this exercise will become more concentrated and (we hope) more impactful.

Our new season, for instance, closes with “Secret Music Skirmishes of the Cold War: The Shostakovich Case.” We’ll take a close look at the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, and how it waged war with Soviet propagandists to capture the hearts and minds of intellectuals on the left in Europe and Latin America. The participants will include Nicholas Dujmovic, former Staff Historian of the CIA, and an actor impersonating President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s claim that the arts can only flourish in “free societies” will be juxtaposed with the evidence of piano works composed by Dmitri Shostakovich as performed by a formidable American pianist. We’ll also invite our audience to read a couple of pertinent books: Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters and Marina Frolova-Walker’s new and revelatory Stalin’s Music Prize. That’s May 23 at the Cathedral.

Our annual PCE “immersion experience” is “The Russian Experiment” — a look at experimental Soviet culture before Stalin. The pertinent events include Vladimir Feltsman performing Mosolov, Roslavets, and Protopopov (whose visionary Piano Sonata No. 2 from 1924 is a major find); and the 1929 classic silent film The New Babylon with Shostakovich’s symphonic score performed live. We’ll want to inquire what this idealistic adventure in political music and cinema amounted to, and why Stalin put an end to it.

Our ongoing “American Roots” initiative explores little-known chapters in the history of African-American music (without which there would be no American music). This season, we focus on Harry Burleigh, who turned spirituals into art songs, and the once famous black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose historic visits to the US (facilitated by Burleigh) immersed him in plantation song and its potential for the concert hall. A major theme of these events will be the subsequent bifurcation of American music into classical and popular – white vs. black. How did that happen? What did it cost us?

I append an overview of our 2017-2018 season. For more detail, click here.

Oct. 19 – “The Russian Experiment” with Vladimir Feltsman

 Dec. 7 – “Music in Wartime: A Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration”

 Feb. 28 – “Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual”

 March 30-31 – “The New Babylon” – The Soviet silent film classic with Shostakovich’s score performed live

 April 21 – “The Star of Ethiopia”: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Historic Visits to DC (1904-1910)

 May 28 – “Secret Musical Skirmishes of the Cold War: The Shostakovich Case”

Unanswered Question | Copland and the Cold War

Copland and the Cold War

September 6, 2017 by Joe Horowitz

PostClassical Ensemble’s most recent WWFM “PostClassical” radio show is “Copland and the Cold War” – aired last Friday and now archived.

Our two-hour program includes Aaron Copland’s prize-winning New Masses workers’ song “Into the Streets, May First” as well as a re-enactment of Copland’s 1953 grilling by Senator Joseph McCarthy starring myself and Bill McGlaughlin.

And – sampling one of PostClassical Ensemble’s three Naxos DVDs presenting classic 1930s films with newly recorded soundtracks — we audition and discuss Copland’s least-known important score: his music for the classical 1939 documentary The City. Scripted by Lewis Mumford, this film – far better known to film-makers than to musicians – advocates government-built “new towns.” Its images of happy workers remind my wife – a native of Communist Hungary – of the propaganda films she knew as a child.

How far did Copland migrate to the left in the 1930s? Citing Howard Pollack’s biography, I read a couple of 1934 letters in which Copland excitedly described his participation in Communist Party functions among Minnesota farmers:

“It’s one thing to talk revolution . . . but to preach it from the streets out loud — well, I made my speech and now I’ll never be the same. Now when we go to town, there are friendly nobs from sympathizers. Farmers come up and talk as one red to another. One feels very much at home, not at all like a mere summer boarder.”

This Cold War chapter concludes a fascinating and at times chilling three-part compositional odyssey charted by “the dean of American composers.” He began as a high modernist in 1930 with his lean, hard, and dissonant Piano Variations – a breakthrough in American music. Then, spurred by Mexico and the Depression, he turned himself into a populist and composed the ballets by which we know him best. It was during the beginning of this period that he addressed Communist farmers, scored The City, and won a New Masses contest for the best workers’ song.

These political adventures returned to haunt Copland in the fifties – during which decade he was bluntly interrogated by McCarthy and observed by the FBI (we now know that the switchboard agent at Tanglewood Festival was an informant). His Lincoln Portrait was dropped by from the Eisenhower inauguration following protests from Republicans in Congress who marked him as a former fellow traveler or worse. Copland now turned his back on the “new audience” he had once wooed, returning to his modernist roots in a series of non-tonal compositions beginning with the bleak Piano Quartet of 1950.

The result is a veritable American fable – suggesting, among other things, that the US is less hospitable to political artists than was the Mexico of Diego Rivera, from which Copland drew instruction. Copland’s Mexican colleague Carlos Chavez at various times conducted Mexico’s first permanent orchestra, ran the National Conservatory of Music, and directed the National Institute of Fine Arts.

Looking back at his Mexican visits of the 1930s, and doubtless reflecting upon the American prominence and influence of such outsiders as Arturo Toscanini, Copland said: “I was a little envious of the opportunity composers have to serve their country in a musical way. When one has done that, one can compose with real joy. Here in the U.S. A. we composers have no possibility of directing the musical affairs of the nation – on the contrary, I have the impression that more and more we are working in a vacuum.”

At the close of our two-hour WWFM radio show, the three co-hosts had (as usual) different perspectives on the topic at hand. Quoting Roger Sessions’ quip that “Aaron is a better composer than he thinks he is,” I opined that the Piano Variations were Copland’s highest achievement and that his populism was “synthetic.”

PCE Music Director Angel Gil-Ordonez expressed admiration for Copland’s non-tonal valedictory, the Piano Fantasy (1957). Of the populist Copland, the best Angel could do was  “He really tried.”

Bill McGlaughlin was aroused by our remarks to passionately defend the entirety of Copland’s oeuvre. From his perspective, Angel and I fail to appreciate the social and political forces impinging on Aaron Copland’s aesthetic vicissitudes — “So you better get over it, Jack.”

The broadcast draws on two PostClassical Ensemble programs: “Copland and the Cold War” (including “Into the Streets,” the McCarthy re-enactment, and Copland piano works in masterly performances by Benjamin Pasternack); and “The City,” presenting the 1939 film with live orchestra. The musical content of both these concerts are preserved on the Naxos recordings we sampled.

Our previous “PostClassical” broadcasts – all archived – are “Are Orchestras Really ‘Better than Ever?’”, a Lou Harrison Centenary celebration, and “Dvorak and Hiawatha.” Coming up next, on 20: “The Most Under-Rated Twentieth Century American Composer” – a tribute to Bernard Herrmann.

COPLAND AND THE COLD WAR

 

LISTENING GUIDE

PART I – Copland the modernist turns populist

6:30 – Copland the wild man: Piano Variations (1930), performed by Benjamin Pasternack on Naxos

22:00 – Copland speaks at a Communist picnic in Minnesota (1934)

28:00 –  “Into the Streets” (1934), Copland’s prize-winning workers’ song for The New Masses

32:00 – Copland becomes a film composer: The City (1939), espousing government-funded “new towns” with happy workers. From PCE’s Naxos DVD.

52:00 – The famous lunch counter scene from The City, in which Copland prefigures Philip Glass

59:00  — “Sunday Traffic” from The City

PART II – Copland the populist returns to modernism

3:00 – Copland in Hollywood: The Red Pony

11:30 – Copland is interrogated by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1953)

18:00 – Giving up on the “new audience” he once courted, Copland composes a non-tonal valedictory: The Piano Fantasy (1957), performed by Benjamin Pasternack on Naxos

CATHEDRAL RESIDENCY

PostClassical Ensemble is delighted to announce that we have been named ensemble-in-residence at the Washington National Cathedral.

Our inaugural season at the Cathedral features three concerts incorporating film and theater, and celebrating music as an instrument for human betterment:

• “Music in Wartime: A Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration” — Thursday, December 7, 2017
• “Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual” —  Wednesday, February 28, 2018
• “Secret Music Skirmishes of the Cold War: The Shostakovich Case” — Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Subscribe today to the three Cathedral concerts and receive a 10% discount

MUSIC IN WARTIME: A Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration

Thursday Dec. 7 at 7:30

For Pearl Harbor Day, we juxtapose galvanizing responses to World War II by Dmitri Shostakovich, Arnold Schoenberg, and Hanns Eisler. With the Cathedral Choir and members of PCE conducted by Michael McCarthy and Angel Gil-Ordonez.

Click here for further information

 

 

DEEP RIVER: The Art of the Spiritual

 Wednesday Feb. 28 at 7:30

 

 

For Black History Month, we celebrate Harry Burleigh, who turned spirituals into art songs. With bass-baritone Kevin Deas, the Cathedral Choir, and 100 high school choristers conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez.

 

 

 

 

Click here for further information

 

SECRET MUSIC SKIRMISHES OF THE COLD WAR: The Shostakovich Case

 Wednesday May 23 at 7:30

Only in recent decades has it become known that the CIA covertly funded a cultural Cold War. A frequent target was Shostakovitch, portrayed as a Soviet stooge. Meanwhile, JFK gave speeches insisting that the arts can only flourish in “free societies.”

Click here for further information

 

Unanswered Question | Rethinking “Classical Radio”

Rethinking “Classical Radio”

July 3, 2017 by Joe Horowitz

 

When commercial radio was new, the airwaves were saturated with classical music – not just recordings and live concerts, but highly produced pedagogical programs. You could tune into Abram Chasins for tips on playing Chopin’s E-flat major Nocturne.

What today passes for classical music radio is a different species of broadcasting. You can spend an afternoon listening to the 50 greatest hits (scientifically culled) in their latest, most generic studio incarnations. Older recordings are shunned. Talking is avoided as a plague upon the listener.

A fellow named David Osenberg has courageously crafted an alternative template. It’s called WWFM Classical Radio and anyone can tune in anytime because it’s streamed internationally. At Dave’s invitation, PostClassical Ensemble now has its own “PostClassical” series on WWFM. These two-hour shows are nationally unique. They’re thematic. They’re crammed with commentary – not just knowledge and opinion, but learned debate. The three participants – myself, PCE Music Director Angel Gil-Ordondez, and hos

 

t Bill McGlaughlin – are frequently flying in different directions. And Bill – who comes to radio as a conductor and musical advocate of long experience – is additionally prone to personal anecdotes and historical digressions that temper my obsessive harangues.

We began with a show challenging Ricardo Muti’s assertion that orchestras are better than ever, sampling amazing recordings from the thirties and forties, when orchestras were better than now.

Then came our Lou Harrison Centenary tribute.

The latest installment, just up, is “Dvorak and Hiawatha.” Like the Harrison show, it features PCE recordings for Naxos – which, like WWFM, enthusiastically supports our attempts to do everything differently.

I believe “Dvorak and Hiawatha” has to be one of the most provocative treatments of American music ever aired on American radio. My premise – which Angel supports and Bill resists – is that Dvorak became an “American composer.” Is the New World Symphony directly inspired by Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha?

 

Does it end with a dirge signifying Hiawatha’s departure into “the purple mists of evening”? Angel and I think so. Bill isn’t so sure. He sees Aaron Copland as an heir to Dvorak. Not I; Copland balked at using the “Negro melodies” Dvorak adored. A truer heir, to my way of thinking, was George Gershwin. Or the American Bartok: Arthur Farwell.

Our shows spill beyond the allotted two hours. But Dave posts everything. Here’s a Listening Guide for “Dvorak and Hiawatha”:

Part I: THE HIAWATHA MELODRAMA

7:00 – How the Dance of Pau-Puk Keewis inspired the Scherzo from Dvorak’s New WorldSymphony

12:30 – Why does Dvorak’s symphony end with a dirge? Hiawatha’s Departure

17:50 – The Larghetto from Dvorak’s Violin Sonatina as a picture of Minnehaha and Minnehaha Falls

26:10 – Dvorak’s American Suite and his Indianist mode

33:00 – The complete Hiawatha Melodrama, with Kevin Deas and PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez, on PCE’s Naxos “Dvorak and America” CD

 

Part II: DVORAK’S AMERICAN SUITE

4:25 – Does the opening evoke Jerome Kern?

5:40 – The second movement’s “plantation song”

8:20 – The third movement’s minstrel dance, plantation song, and Indian elegy

12:20 – What defines Dvorak’s Indianist trope?

13:13 – How an Indian dance becomes a minstrel song in the finale

15:35 – Why this is not “program music”

17:35 – The complete American Suite, performed by pianist Benjamin Pasternack on PCE’s Naxos “Dvorak and America” CD

 

39:00 – Why is Dvorak’s “American style” more than an “American accent”?

40:02 – The Dvorak Humoresques in G-flat and F major (sounds like Gershwin), with pianist Benjamin Pasternack

53:00 – Dvorak vs Aaron Copland – why Gershwin is the real heir to Dvorak

Part III: THE AMERICAN BARTOK: ARTHUR FARWELL

00:50 – Farwell’s Indian War Dance No. 2, performed by Benjamin Pasternack

6:06 – Farwell’s “Pawnee Horses,” in versions for piano (Benjamin Pasternack) and 16-part a cappella chorus (The University of Texas Chamber Singers conducted by James Morrow)

17:00 – Dvorak/Fisher: “Goin’ Home,” sung by Kevin Deas with PCE conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez

TO PURCHASE PCE’S “DVORAK AND AMERICA” ON NAXOS: click here

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT DVORAK AND AMERICA: click here

Unanswered Question | The Lou Harrison Centenary

The Lou Harrison Centenary

May 2, 2017 by Joe Horowitz

If you asked me who composed the best American violin concerto, and who composed the best American piano concerto, I would answer with the same name: Lou Harrison.

And yet, except on the West Coast of the United States, Harrison is not a brand name. The present Harrison Centenary year can help to change that. We finally have a copious full-scale biography: Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell. Alex Ross, our most necessary observer of American classical music, has published a brief but telling Harrison encomium in The New Yorker. And PostClassical Ensemble has contributed a new Naxos CD with two of Harrison’s most important works: the aforementioned Concerto for Violin and Percussion, and the Grand Duo for violin and piano.

Last week, PCE launched our new CD with a Harrison concert at the Indonesian Embassy in DC (a Harrison mecca thanks to Ambassador Budi Bowoleksono). Both the CD and the concert (and also Ambassador Bowoleksono) are represented in the second installment of our “PostClassical” radio series on the indispensable WWFM Classical Network. You can access this two-hour tribute, hosted by Bill McGlaughlin, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, and myself, right here.
To listen to the Violin Concerto, in a torrid performance by Tim Fain with Angel and PCE, just fast-forward to 18:35 of Part I.

Harrison invented the percussion ensemble with John Cage and Henry Cowell. With Cage, he plundered junkyards and import stores in search of new percussion resources. Their implements included old brake drums and a variety of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian instruments. The eminence gris of American percussion, William Kraft, once told me:

“It was totally new to explore Asian percussion and junk percussion, as Cowell, Cage, and Harrison did. I found Lou’s percussion writing more fascinating than Cowell’s or Cage’s. I think he was the most musical, and the most in tune with sound. I think the Harrison Concerto for Violin and Percussion is a masterpiece – you don’t find music like that written by Cowell or Cage. The solo part for the violin is a virtuoso part, extremely well written. And all the sounds, whether produced by maracas or flower pots, are so well integrated that you forget that they’re exotic.”

You could say that Harrison’s concerto combines the experimental panache of an amateur with the craft of a professional. The first two movements were composed in 1940, then revised in 1959 when the finale was added. Harrison gratefully acknowledged the influence of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto of 1935: “among the highest musical achievements of the century. . . . It really walloped me.” Berg’s molto espressivo violin writing echoes through Harrison’s score. There are also precise percussion instructions in Harrison’s exquisite hand – “For the washtubs, drill holes (4) up from center on the sides of inverted galvanized iron tubs & suspend by strong elastic cords.” For the coffee cans, “cork or rubber-ended pen-holders make good beaters . . . & are best for the clock coils as well.”

Harrison’s music is an original, precise, and yet elusive product of far-flung cultural excursions. He may also be understood as a composer of paradoxes. His idiom is lyric but never lush. He can be monumental but is not grandiose. His Western forebears are Renaissance, Medieval, and Baroque, not the far more famous Classical and Romantic masters. His American roots are wonderfully protean. American is his self-made, learn-by-doing, try-everything approach. So is his polyglot range of affinities. He espoused “world music” before there was a name for it.

PCE’s new Naxos recording documents twin aspects of Harrison’s art: his pioneering role as a composer for percussion, and his pioneering role integrating Western and Indonesian idioms. The achievements are linked. Western percussion instruments of metal and wood are largely Eastern in origin. The gamelan bred the xylophone.

Harrison first learned to play gamelan in 1975, when a Javanese gamelan visited Berkeley for a summer institute. His teacher was Pak Cokro — one of the foremost twentieth-century gamelan masters. It was Pak Cokro who first suggested that Harrison compose for gamelan. The Grand Duo for violin and piano – performed on the new Naxos CD by Fain and Michael Boriskin — is a remarkable example of gamelan-infused chamber music. Like Harrison’s Piano Concerto of 1985, it embodies Harrison at his most regal. Its sustained majesty is a function of its steady, gamelan-like trajectory, undeflected by the tension-and-release of traditional Western harmonic practice. The piano’s sharp attacks and tolling octaves evoke gamelan sounds. Gamelan penetrates in countless other ways, obvious and not. The resulting music does not much resemble the music of anyone else. It is certainly music unthinkable from Cowell or Cage.

The WWFM Harrison Centenary tribute also features music not on the CD – including the sublime Suite for Violin and Harp of 1949, in live performance at the Indonesian Embassy (go to 42:18 part II). This happens to be the first Harrison composition I ever encountered – as a green New York Times music critic in the late 1970s. Its combination of simplicity and originality confounded me. In those days, the hallmark of musical originality was complexity. I listened with guilty pleasure.

Times change – and so must the reputation of Lou Harrison, born in Portland, Oregon, a century ago.

The WWFM “PostClassical” Celebration of the Lou Harrison Centenary:

PART I:

00:00: Gamelan influences Debussy and Poulenc

18:35: “Stampede” from Harrison Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Gamelan, recorded in live performance by Nati Draiblate and Ben Capps, with PCE percussionists Bill Richards and John Spirtas conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez

33:54: Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, from our Naxos CD with Tim Fain and Michael Boriskin

PART II:

7:38: Harrison/Cage “Double Music,” from our Naxos CD

42:18: Harrison Suite for Cello and Harp, recorded in live performance by Ben Capps and Jacqueline Pollauf

54:58: Harrison Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Gamelan, movement 3, recorded in live performance by Draiblate, Capps, and the Indonesian Embassy Javanese Gamelan (leader: Pak Muryanto)

1:07:18: A Lou Harrison tribute by Indonesian Ambassador Budi Bowoleksono

Unanswered Question | Arts Leadership in the Age of Trump

Arts Leadership in the Age of Trump

March 2, 2017 by Joseph Horowitz

In 1966 the New York Philharmonic undertook an 18-day Stravinsky festival as a kind of try-out for Lukas Foss, whom Leonard Bernstein favored to take over as music director. The conductors included Foss, Bernstein, Ernest Ansermet (who had conducted for Diaghilev), Kiril Kondrashin (a major Soviet artist), and Stravinsky himself. George Balanchine choreographed Ragtime for Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell. The Soldier’s Tale was given with John Cage as the Devil, Elliott Carter as the Soldier, and Aaron Copland narrating. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sang five Stravinsky songs, Pulcinella, an excerpt from The Rake’sProgress. Larry Rivers created a visual presentation for Oedipus Rex. Remarkably, the Stravinsky festival fizzled and Foss was passed over in favor of a French composer/conductor – Pierre Boulez – as much a stranger to Bernstein’s American agenda as to Indian ragas or Brazilian sambas.

In 1972, across the Lincoln Center Plaza, New York City Ballet undertook a Stravinsky festival of its own. Balanchine’s company gave seven Stravinsky programs in eight days. Of 31 ballets presented, 21 were premieres. The eight Balanchine premieres included Violin Concerto, instantly recognized as iconic, and – on the same opening night — Symphony in Three Movements, which would take some years to register.

Comparisons to the Philharmonic’s Stravinsky festival six years previous were and are inescapable. The Philharmonic festival was bigger, with more big names and a fuller perspective on the Stravinsky odyssey — but was quickly forgotten. Obviously, the City Ballet festival enjoyed a creative component: the new ballets. Equally obvious was the difference in reception. For the Philharmonic subscribers, Stravinsky remained a chore. For patrons of City Ballet, Stravinsky was a privilege.

I tell this story in the course of a 10,000-word essay on arts leadership, written last year when I was a Resident Fellow at NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. It’s currently posted on Doug McLennan’s invaluable artsjournal.com site, with five substantial responses – an “AJ Debate” itself linked to a recent “arts leadership” conclave at the University of Texas/El Paso.

A villain in my tale is Arthur Judson, for decades the major powerbroker for classical music in the US. Abdicating arts leadership (he even disfavored engaging a music director), Judson had for 34 years haphazardly fostered a faceless Philharmonic constituency. Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein had since 1948 purposefully honed a validating cultural community. George Balanchine and City Ballet changed the face of dance. Leonard Bernstein led audiences to Mahler: he expanded the canon. But Bernstein could not change the face of the New York Philharmonic.

The starting point of my essay is an iconic 1966 photograph I remember from my teenage years. Balanchine, Bernstein, and Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, are posed in front of Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. The Met is about to inaugurate its new home, completing the move to Lincoln Center of the three main institutional constituents. Bing stands alongside a poster brandishing the sold-out world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, inaugurating the New Met. Bernstein (with cigarette) stands alongside a poster showing the sold-out run of a subscription program comprising an obscure Beethoven overture, William Schuman’s String Symphony, and Mahler’s First (not yet a repertoire staple). A City Ballet poster, to the rear, announces the dates of the Fall season. So depicted, three performing arts leaders – all of them famously strong personalities — are seen poised to drive their celebrated companies to greater heights, buoying an unprecedented American cultural complex

Ten thousand words later, my essay ends:

“Lincoln Center was conceived by public-spirited corporate businessmen, led by John D. Rockefeller III. It never became a magnet for artists and intellectuals, humming with creativity, after the fashion of Harvey Lichtenstein’s BAM or Joe Papp’s Public Theatre. It has lately acquired a $1.5 billion facelift, including a dramatically thrusting façade for Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School; Tully itself, however, remains deficient in the intimacy and warmth appropriate to a chamber-music venue.

“Imagine, if you can, a photograph of Peter Gelb, Alan Gilbert, and Peter Martins posed in front of the new, glass-enclosed Tully complex. All three institutions are poised to collaborate on a multi-week festival addressing pressing contemporary social and political issues, with the full participation of the New York City public schools and the City University of New York (whose Hunter College Auditorium will reportedly host the Philharmonic during Geffen Hall renovations).”

I cited this pipedream because I knew it would be realized this February in the city of El Paso, where a “Copland and Mexico” festival, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, would celebrate cultural collaboration between two nations embroiled in an uncertain future relationship. Mexico’s amazing artistic efflorescence of the 1930s – today mostly unremembered by young Mexican-Americans – would be the central topic.

A centerpiece of the programing would be the iconic film of the Mexican Revolution: Redes (1935), which thrillingly combines the talents of a master (and under-recognized) Mexican composer —  Silvestre Revueltas — and a legendary American photographer – Paul Strand. The participating institutions would include the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, the El Paso public schools, and the University of Texas/El Paso (UTEP), with classes and faculty members in half a dozen departments taking part. The festival would penetrate outlying “colonias” without paved roads or running water, and also the neighboring Mexican city of Juarez. The many scheduled events would include “Copland and the Cold War” – an evening of music and theater exploring the impact of the Red Scare on America’s most prominent composer of concert music. It all duly transpired a week ago.

What I could not anticipate was the pertinence of the El Paso festival to arts leadership in the age of Donald Trump – the inevitable focus of the artsjournal conclave in El Paso on Feb. 17. The participants, in addition to Doug and myself, were two bona fide arts leaders: Frank Candelaria, UTEP’s missionary Associate Provost, and Delta David Gier, music director of the unique South Dakota Symphony – whose Lakota Music Project I have extolled in this space. You can watch the conclave here. The talks are 20 minutes each. They tell stories — about how the arts can impact on the way we live, and on individual lives — that need to be heard, and never more than now.

Unanswered Question | Are Orchestras Better than Ever?

Are Orchestras Better than Ever? Why Riccardo Muti is Wrong

February 26, 2017 by Joseph Horowitz

Are orchestras better than ever?  Riccardo Muti thinks so. Recently, dedicating a bust of Fritz Reiner at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, he said: “The level of the orchestras in the world – especially in the seventies and eighties — has gone up everywhere.”

What is Muti talking about? I suppose he’s applying the criterion of perfection. Perfect intonation, perfect ensemble. What kind of criterion is that?

Thanks to the exceptional WWFM The Classical Network, I’ve been able to respond to this parochial claim at three hours length, in colloquy with Bill McGlaughlin. You can hear the resulting rant here and here. Bill and I auditioned fabulous concert and studio recordings by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Symphony, Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic, Artur Bodanzky and the  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic.

Three things bear mentioning about these historic pairings. The first is that – to a degree unknown today – the conductors stayed put. There were no airplanes. The music director was the music director.

The second thing that leaps to mind – and to the attentive ear – is that each of these conductors honed a distinctive sonic imprint. No one could possibly mistake a Stokowski orchestra for a Mitropoulos orchestra.

Thirdly, each of these conductors pursued a distinctive mission allied with repertoire. Except in the cases of Bodanzky and Toscanini, the espoused repertoire was fresh.

Take Koussevitzky in Boston (a 25-year tenure). He gave the American premiere of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He gave the world premiere of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. What is more, he commissioned both these famous compositions. His Boston broadcasts capture the most galvanizing readings of both pieces I have ever heard. Bill and I listened to them together. You can hear Koussevitzky’s indescribably hot Mussorgsky/Ravel at 51:40 here – after which I exclaimed “Give me a break! You can’t possibly tell me orchestras are better than ever!”

Then there is Mitropoulos in Minneapolis – an extremist, the Dr. Caligari of the podium. This was an orchestra whose concertmaster, Louis Krasner, had premiered the Berg and Schoenberg concertos. Its stylistic base was Mahler and the Second Viennese School. In 1940 Mitropoulos made the first and best recording of Mahler’s First Symphony. Check it out at 10:16 here. If Mitropoulos (as I argue, citing evidence) conducts Mahler a la Mahler, his Schumann Second Symphony a la Mahler is an acquired taste. Bill (at 32:38) was bewildered: “It makes me really jittery. I can’t understand this Schumann. I know that Schumann was meshugana. It’s almost like an Expressionist Schuman . . . this is so crazy-making for me. Help me out!”

The larger premise of this three-hour harangue is that nothing like the bristling sense of occasion once registered by Koussevitzky and Mitropoulos – or by Bodanzky’s powderkeg of a pit orchestra, so much more distinctive than the generic Met Opera orchestra of today – can any longer be assured. The concert experience needs to be refreshed and rethought. That’s the premise of PostClassical Ensemble, the DC-based chamber orchestra I co-founded with Angel Gil-Ordonez 14 years ago.

In April, WWFM inaugurates “PostClassical,” a series of two-hour thematic specials culling live and recorded PCE performances. We begin by celebrating the Lou Harrison Centenary on April 28. In June, we argue that Bernard Herrmann was the most underrated American composer of the 20th century. Others shows in the series will include “Schubert Uncorked” (with bass trombonist David Taylor), “Stravinsky and Shostakovich Reconsidered (with pianist Alexander Toradze), “Dvorak and Hiawatha,” and “Silvestre Revueltas: Better than Copland.”

Stay tuned.

Unanswered Question | Music and the National Mood

Music and the National Mood

February 6, 2017 by Joseph Horowitz

PostClassical Ensemble – the DC chamber orchestra I co-founded a dozen years ago – produced a concert at the Washington National Cathedral last Saturday night that seemed to address the national mood. These are fractious times – times in which the arts can acquire a special pertinence. Times in which music can be a provocation or a balm.

We titled our program “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” It intermingled spirituals with religious arias by Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Our inspiration was the example of Harry Burleigh – who more than anyone else was responsible for transforming spirituals into art songs.

Burleigh – once Dvorak’s assistant at New York’s National Conservatory (1892-1895) — is a forgotten hero of American music. His seminal “Deep River” arrangement of 1915 electrified American audiences; it was instantly appropriated by preeminent white recitalists. It was later sung by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. It is still sung today.

Burleigh’s own recital repertoire also included songs by Beethoven, Faure, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky. Mendelssohn’s Elijah was a Burleigh specialty. Doubtless for Burleigh all this music spoke a common language of uplift.

Our soloist at the Washington Cathedral was the African-American bass-baritone Kevin Deas. I would say that he is today’s supreme exponent of spirituals in concert. He made his early career singing Bach and Handel. He came relatively late to Burleigh’s spiritual arrangements. For him the distance from Messiah to “Go Down, Moses” is inconsequential.

It has been my privilege to accompany Kevin Deas in concert for the past decade – but never before in such a vast and inspirational space. Burleigh himself advised that “success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling.” Kevin possesses a divinely mellifluous instrument (an audience member at one of our concerts confided, weeping, that she felt she had heard “the voice of God”). But his performances  begin not with notes; they begin with with feeling. I know from experience with other singers that an iota of ego is fatal in this repertoire. At the National Cathedral, the gravitas of the space informed all we did. My sense, on stage, was that the evening’s eighth number, Burleigh’s voice-and-piano arrangement of “Steal Away,” hypnotized the big room for good (the nave held nearly 1,000 listeners). It sounded like this:

After that, seamlessly (we proceeded without applause), came Nathaniel Dett’s galvanizing “Listen to the Lambs” with the Cathedral Choir, then Kevin Deas singing “For the Mountain Shall Depart” from Elijah, with PostClassical Ensemble led by Angel Gil-Ordonez. The evening built to Burleigh’s classic “Deep River” for mixed a cappella chorus, followed by two Messiah selections: “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and the Hallelujah Chorus.

But if there was a signature number, it may have been William Dawson’s arrangement of “There is a Balm in Gilead” – a piece Leontyne Price used to sing. Many with whom I spoke afterward had found the evening a necessary balm.

During the Cold War, the Kennedy White House famously hosted culture. JFK would talk about how the arts can only thrive in a harmonious “free society.” That was either naïve nonsense or cynical propaganda. The arts thrive in exigent times. In the twentieth century, the thirties and the sixties – the Depression, the Vietnam years — were decades remarkable for American artistic expression, decades in which music memorably voiced protest and compassion.

We may well be embarking on another such trying period in our nation’s history. In what ways will our musical institutions rise to the occasion? We shall see.

Mind of A Musician: Chris Gekker

PostClassical Ensemble’s principal trumpeter Chris Gekker sits down with Dimension Media’s Behrouz Jamali in conversation about his career on the stage and in the studio.

Chris next appears with PostClassical Ensemble in The Trumpet Shall Sound on February 4, 2017 at Washington National Cathedral.

PostClassical Ensemble’s Kevin Deas on WETA | Classical Conversation

PostClassical Ensemble’s Resident Artists and Soloist in the upcoming program The Trumpet Shall Sound on February 4 at the National Cathedral, Kevin Deas joined WETA’s Marilyn Cooley for a Classical Conversation.

Kevin Deas on WETA's Classical Conversations with Marilyn Cooley

The PostClassical Ensemble and Washington National Cathedral join forces on Saturday February 4 at the Cathedral for a concert titled The Trumpet Shall Sound — A Program of Spirituals and Religious Arias.  Bass-baritone Kevin Deas is a featured artist, and he joined Marilyn Cooley at Classical WETA‘s studios to talk about the upcoming program.

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