In the wind...

October 1, 2014

Abetted by Satan

On August 5, 2014, the New York Times published a review of two concerts performed on the same evening as part of Lincoln Center’s “Mostly Mozart Festival.” Both featured Swedish clarinetist Martin Frost, about whom critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote, “In earlier times, the talent of Martin Frost would have attracted suspicion. Like that of Paganini, whom contemporaries suspected to be in cahoots with the Devil…” Ms. Fonseca-Wollheim gushed on: “… something approaching the supernatural … sounds he drew from his clarinet were so extraordinary that they produced incredulous laughter and head-shaking …” The headline read, “Languid, Meandering, and Clearly Abetted by Satan.”

In the second half of the first program, Frost joined the Emerson String Quartet to play Mozart’s glorious clarinet quintet. Ms. Fonseca-Wollheim reported that his artistry pulled the Emerson’s players back together after a lackluster first half. Of that, she wrote, “Without him … the Emersons were having a bad evening … visibly struggled to hit their stride … uncharacteristic intonation problems … It felt as if the players were fiddling with the radio dial in search of a frequency on which to broadcast the music clearly.” Ouch! She went on, “It was an entirely different string quartet that returned for the performance of the Mozart…”

It’s unusual for a critic to carry on with such abandon. It was as if the fair Corinna was smitten and couldn’t help herself.

Last week, there was another article about Martin Frost in the New York Times. This time the writer was George Loomis, and he was commenting on another facet of Frost’s apparent genius. He opened the piece reporting that Frost was to start his season of appearances by playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, adding that he had played the same piece thirty-seven times last season. But the point of the article was Martin Frost’s “urge to move beyond the traditional concert format to create a new kind of experience.”

In an interview following his appearances at the “Mostly Mozart Festival,” the forty-three-year-old Frost said, “I’ve started to look back at my career from a point in the future. When I’m 85, what will I think I’ve done with my life? I wouldn’t be proud that I’d done 1200 Weber concertos. I need to shake myself around and be brave enough to develop new ideas.”

In that interest, Martin Frost has created a program that includes music taken from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and other well-known works, in which he appears as soloist, conductor, dancer, actor, and master of ceremonies. Two other clarinetists appear (Bless their hearts!) along with other orchestra players, the whole enhanced by lighting and choreography.


Silk and goats

In the world of sports, “the greatest of all time” can be defined, at least in part, by numbers—the most home runs, the most goals, the most saves, the most strikeouts. It’s more difficult to define “the greatest” in the arts. Who was the greatest painter? Was it Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, or Pollock? The work of those four can hardly be compared, so it seems impossible to know who was best.

The twentieth century knew three great cellists, Pablo Casals (1876–1973), Mstislav Rostropovich (1927–2007), and Yo-Yo Ma (born 1955). The twenty-first century has given us Facebook as a new vehicle for the dissemination of wisdom. A lovely quote from Casals appears regularly in those ubiquitous pages. Asked at the age of ninety-three why he still practiced three hours a day, Casals replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”

It’s easy to argue that those three masters set the standard for modern cello playing, if one fails to mention Jacqueline Du Pré, Janos Starker, or Lynn Harrell. But in the spirit of gushing, I’m willing to single out Yo-Yo Ma as an inspiration, a technical wizard, a magical interpreter, and an imaginative performer. Heaven knows how many times he has played The Elgar, The Barber, or The Dvorak (there are two Dvorak cello concertos), but it must be hundreds of repetitions for each.

Yo-Yo Ma has made more than seventy-five recordings and he has sixteen Grammy Awards to show for his trouble. A Grammy Award is a mighty special thing, and many performers are satisfied with just one. But think of this. He received those sixteen Grammys in just twenty-seven years, between 1986 and 2013. That’s an average of 1.7 Grammys each year! Give me a break.

But wait, there’s more. You might expect that Yo-Yo Ma’s Grammys would be in the usual categories: Best Chamber Music Performance, Best Instrumental Soloist Performance, Best Classical Album. Of course he’s all over those. But he’s also received four for Best Classical Crossover Album and one for Best Folk Music Album!

Instead of satisfying himself with the acknowledged glory of playing the great works for cello and orchestra on all the world’s greatest stages, the height of ambition for most performers, he has collaborated with the electrifying genius Bobby McFerrin, and founded the Silk Road Project, which has brought the world’s indigenous music together in the most energetic and meaningful way. Wendy and I attended a concert of the Silk Road Project at Tanglewood last summer, and were thrilled and mystified by the beauty of the collaboration. I was especially moved to witness Yo-Yo Ma (the world’s greatest cellist?) sitting as an equal between two younger brilliant cellists.

Remember that folk music Grammy? The Goat Rodeo Sessions is the collaboration of Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile. It’s roughly described as a blend of classical and bluegrass music, and the term “goat rodeo” refers to a chaotic event that can succeed only if everything goes just right. One of the cuts on the album (my kids hate it when I use the old-fashioned word, album) is titled “13:8.” Students of music have pored over the piece analyzing the meter in attempts to make it conform to the time signature, 13:8. The mystery was revealed during a concert at Tanglewood in August of 2013, during which Stuart Duncan shared the story of an airline pilot with the audience. Each evening, when the flight attendant served his dinner, he replied, “Hebrews 13:8.” Her interest piqued, she finally looked up the New Testament verse: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

By the way, The Goat Rodeo Sessions was awarded two Grammys: Best Folk Album, and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.


What should I play this year?

I served a Congregational church in suburban Boston as music director for almost twenty years. I was fortunate to have lots of resources to work with including enthusiastic volunteer singers, a professional quartet, a fine pipe organ and excellent piano, and funds sufficient to maintain a large library and to engage other musicians for festivals and concerts. I was proud of the programming, but as I look back on it, I know I wasn’t always as imaginative as I could have been. I could never resist the temptation to play Bach’s settings of Valet will ich dir geben on Palm Sunday. They are both smashing pieces, based on the tune we know colloquially as St. Theodulph (“All glory, laud, and honor”). Of course, I published the title in German, assuming that the parishioners would figure it out. I haven’t gone back through archives to prove it, but it’s a safe bet I played those pieces on each of those nineteen Palm Sundays.

What’s the formula for a classic organ recital? I can give you a couple. The simplest is the “All-Whomever” recital. Your choice. Bach, Buxtehude, Scheidt, the list goes on and on. Open with a  chaconne, then a set of chorale preludes, followed by a choral fantasy. Interval. Second half: minor prelude and fugue, trio sonata or set of variations, close with a major toccata and fugue.

Or for more variety: Classic French set (the usual Couperin, Corrette, De Grigny, or Clérambault), three German chorale preludes, then a Baroque prelude and fugue. Interval. Second half: Selections from a favorite collection (Vierne or Langlais 24, or Pierné 3), novelty (elves, nymphs, naiads, your choice), close with swashbuckling barnburner.

Similar formulas also apply to the programming of orchestral concerts: Opera overture, classical piano concerto (“Elvira Madigan”). Intermission. Second half: Major Romantic symphony with lots of recognizable tunes and French horn solos.



Joseph Heller’s novel published in 1961 is a brilliant, satirical telling of the experiences of a group of World War II airmen in a fictional squadron based on an Italian island. The common thread seems simple enough—they are all trying to hold it together until the end of the war or their discharge from the service, whichever comes first. Some are trying to maintain sanity, while others are trying to convince their superiors of their insanity. The telling is so complex that the title of the book has become a catchphrase in our language describing an enigma, a puzzle that cannot be solved. A simple example that happens to me: if you lose your glasses, you can’t see to find them.

The commercial demands of the symphony orchestra have never been more clear. The past few years have shown a spate of stories about strained labor relations between orchestral musicians and the institutions that pay them. The Minnesota Orchestra is a premier example. When the board of directors asked the musicians to accept reductions in salary and benefits, the musicians pointed out that the wildly expensive renovation of the concert hall was the cause of the orchestra’s financial difficulties. The dispute raged for years with the board of directors locking out the players, culminating in the resignation of music director Osmo Vänskä, who was credited with creating a dramatic increase in the quality and popularity of the orchestra. 

The musicians made a unanimous vote of no confidence in the board’s president, Michael Henson. Vänskä stated that Henson’s departure would be essential to the orchestra’s recovery. Henson resigned, and eight other board members resigned in protest. Now, Vänskä has been engaged in a new two-year contract to start rebuilding the fortunes of the orchestra. This dispute has been a classic example of the struggle between art and commerce. It costs a fortune to place an elite symphony orchestra on stage for a single concert. One might wish that excellence in performance and programming would be enough to assure funding.


James Levine was music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 2004 until 2011. Levine, a musician’s musician, brought a host of terrific collaborators to the Boston stage. And as a tireless champion of new music, he programmed the most fascinating series of concerts. Wendy and I benefitted from this in three ways. One was simply the exposure to many brilliant performances of exciting and challenging new music. The second was when friends offered us their excellent subscription seats because they were tired of all the new music. The third—we lived for two years in an apartment on Massachusetts Avenue next door to Symphony Hall and as BSO audiences dwindled, the management of the apartment building received complimentary tickets from the BSO in their effort to put “butts in seats,” and we were only too happy to accept those offers.

It’s ironic that we who are interested in hearing new music benefit from the dismay of the many who don’t. It’s a safe bet that if Levine returned to the beloved formula, the hall would be filled.


In September of 2013, the stagehands at Carnegie Hall went on strike, demanding that they should have control over the movement of musical furniture in the hall’s new educational wing, due to open the following month. The turmoil was well documented in the New York Times and other august publications. Forbes Magazine documented that the hall’s executive director Clive Gillinson was paid $1,113,000 in 2012. The next highest-paid employee was stagehand Dennis O’Connell ($465,000), followed by carpenter James Csollany ($441,000). Fourth on the list was the Hall’s chief financial officer. Fifth and sixth were an electrician and another stagehand. How in the world can we afford to make music if we have to pay someone $465,000 a year to move music stands? Many of us sweated through this dispute because the opening of the Carnegie Hall season was in doubt, and our friend and colleague Stephen Tharp was to appear with the American Symphony Orchestra in Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony. Happily, that concert was presented as scheduled, but the season opener, ironically an important fundraising event for the (recovering from a bitter labor dispute) Philadelphia Orchestra, celebrating its new music director, was cancelled because of the strike. By the way, because the new wing is specifically dedicated to educational activities and is not a performance space, the stagehands lost that round.

On August 22, the New York Times published an article about the opera house Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy. The story opened with snide comments about how Italian opera houses are typically known for poor management and finances, singling out Teatro Regio as one company that’s making waves with wonderful performances, and ambitious tours and recording projects. But once again we run into that struggle. Music director Gianandrea Noseda is threatening to resign, accusing the company’s general manager Walter Vergnano of reigning in the finances unnecessarily. Noseda is quoted as saying, “Now we have the engine of a fantastic car, like a Ferrari, but you cannot drive a Ferrari and win the Gran Prix if you leave the brake down all the time.”


The mother of them all

All of these stories pale in comparison to the recent wild machinations at the Metropolitan Opera. The Met’s general manager Peter Gelb has been heralded as a genius in the field of arts administration, especially through his introduction of live HD simulcasts of Met performances, showing in some 700 movie theaters around the world, and attended by nearly a million viewers. But when the Met faced growing and serious deficits in its colossal budget, which exceeds $330,000,000, the salaried employees accused Gelb of placing too much of the burden of economy on them. According to the Met’s website, there are some 3400 employees, including 300 solo artists, 100 orchestra players, and 80 chorus members. These most visible workers are supported by legions of carpenters, tailors, directors, make-up and hair artists, painters, electricians, and—you guessed it—stagehands. All of these workers are represented by powerful unions, and the dirty details were published in the Times in a long series of complex articles. 

We learned that members of the orchestra and chorus are paid over $200,000 a year—nice compensation, but it doesn’t seem like that much when you realize that the 2012–2013 season included 209 performances of 28 operas. Add the requisite rehearsal time, and you have a mighty busy year! We learned that the highest fee paid to solo artists is about $16,000 a performance. Nice compensation, but given the depth of education and preparation compared to an evening’s take for a hip-hop artist, it doesn’t seem like that much.

The dispute put the musicians into the awkward position of arguing for fewer new productions of old favorites, and less new music in the interest of saving money. The recent new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle cost nearly $20,000,000. Why not just trot out the old one? There was an excruciating series of articles as the company threatened to lock out the employees and cancel the season. A special national arbitrator was engaged to direct the negotiations. Several deadlines passed or were extended, and finally a settlement was announced. The show must go on.


And our survey says…

In many markets, the most banal of classical music programming is the most successful. Radio stations run audience surveys whose results are predictable. The audience wants to hear the “greatest hits.” Brilliant and innovative programming, such as Levine’s in Boston, reduces the audience, but we need programming like that to sustain the arts, to encourage creativity, and to be sure there always is new music.

But the enigma continues. While I am strongly supportive of bold programming in concert venues, and am disappointed when programming seems weak when bending to popular demand, I realize that the future of the organ world, performers and audiences alike, depends on the discovery of bold new ways to use our venerated and ancient instrument. “Dead White Men” is a phrase that implies the kiss of death in the world of the arts. I interpret that to mean that we shouldn’t depend on the work of those from centuries before us for the completeness of our artistic expression. And with its huge heritage of ancient music, its correct and unswerving connection with the church, and its often arcane voice among the clamor of the modern world, the pipe organ can be the ultimate example of the Dead White Man. 

I got interested in the organ as a kid simply because I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I have many friends and colleagues who share that experience. Ours is a world in which you can easily spend $250,000 on a fine piano. When I was a student at Oberlin in the 1970s, that was the price of a new 45-stop Flentrop (Warner Concert Hall). We’re more than a tenth of the way through the twenty-first century. Let’s give ’em their money’s worth.