Thursday, July 19, 2012


Recently I have been listening to the music of Beyoncé, and everything about her begs the question: what's not to like?

To wit:

-She has an astonishing voice, with superb rhythm, a wide range of color, a great sense of rubato and portamento (and knowing when to use them), and great *range. Nothing is sacrificed when she performs live -- where others lip sync during difficult dance routines, Beyoncé doesn't drop a beat.

-She has a gorgeous figure, and knows it, but never appears to flaunt it. We're looking, from every angle, and that's just fine with her. And one more thing: she has legs to rival Tina Turner.

-She's a wonderful dancer. Watching her perform 'Deja Vu' at the 2006 World Music Awards gave me chills.

-She is a credible actress. Her Foxxy Cleopatra with Mike Myers's Austin Powers was good stuff. My kids and I loved it.

-She is a generous performer, preferring to share the stage with other women, including her all-female band. (Are there fewer women guitarists than women conductors?) On her recordings, she often shares the spotlight with her husband, Jay-Z. In Dreamgirls, she shared top billing with Jennifer Hudson, who got most of the attention.

-She is a beautiful woman.

-She has a commanding presence, and a powerful stage charisma. No matter how many performers are on stage with her, our eyes always go back to Beyoncé.

-She lives an exemplary private life, devoid of drama. The tabloids have nothing on her. After a quiet courtship of a half dozen years, she married a few years ago. When she began to embark on her solo career, there were no cries for Destiny's Child. And from time to time, as is her wont, Beyoncé brings Miss Rowland and Miss Williams back to sing a song.

As I said . . . what's not to like?

* In this acoustically intimate version of "Halo," she goes from a high F down to a low c . . . yes: the low c an octave below middle C. Believe it:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

London musicians playing for free

People are often shocked when I tell them how much the lowest paid players in such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony earn (over $100,000). After they have recovered from their shock, I point out to them that every orchestral musician is worth his/her weight in gold, and more. Which is why it is disturbing to learn that the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games is asking musicians to perform without pay.

Here is yesterday's article in The Telegraph, written by Ivan Hewitt:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bill Maher on Classical Music and the NEA

I have a limited package with a local television company, so a recent week in Pittsburgh allowed me to watch Bill Maher on HBO in my hotel. The Supreme Court had just ruled on the Affordable Care Act, and Maher's guests were, appropriately, a liberal bunch who had a great time pillorying the right wing.

But Maher is not the sort of fellow who always takes a liberal stance. He is among those who would like to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. On his show in early May, he said:

. . . . lots of people give money to symphonies ... and they get tax deductions for that ... but they shouldn’t.... Unlike food and water, access to Mozart is not a basic human necessity.

This reminded me of Justice Scalia's remarks on the ACA ruling, drawing an analogy between forcing people to buy broccoli with the mandate for buying health care. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made note of this in her opinion:

The inevitable yet unpredictable need for medical care and the guarantee that emergency care will be provided when required are conditions nonexistent in the other markets. That is so of the market for cars, and of the market for broccoli.

Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization (which seeks to provide music education for children of color, several of whom were guest soloists with the Hartford Symphony during my tenure as music director), is often asked, 'if people are hungry and thirsty, why should I give to the arts?' His response:

First, please do feed the hungry and provide clean water to all. But then, is nothing else of value in our society? Do we seek only a well-fed people with access to water?

The arguments between Ginsburg and Scalia/Dworkin and Maher speak less to differences in thinking than it does to what we value in our society. Dworkin is among the very few who understand that our nation's drug epidemic is not removed by simply taking away the drug. You have to remove the need.

Jose Antonio Abreu, in his desire to change the Venezuelan culture, stated

"Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values - solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings."

Over 35 years later, due to Abreu's genius and Herculean determination, Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar watches over Venezuela's 125 youth orchestras, has 31 symphony orchestras, and between 310,000 to 370,000 children attend its music schools around the country. 70 to 90 percent of the students come from poor socio-economic backgrounds.

Abreu's most outstanding protégé is Gustavo Dudamel, now Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has recently inaugurated its own Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, providing intensive music training and academic support to students from underserved neighborhoods.

Dworkin and Abreu are modern day heroes. Most of us examine a problem and try to come up with an answer. These men saw a problem, looked beyond it, and changed the world. What Bill Maher may not know is that both of these men needed a lot of help to achieve that.

Music Director figures

Last week, on his WQXR blog, Brian Wise wrote a piece on the salaries of music directors and executive directors. While the figures below will raise eyebrows for some, I would say that these men and women are compensated accordingly -- what the market will bear. They are in a class of their own.

Here is the article:

Adaptistration, the blog on the orchestra business, has published its annual charts of salaries for most of the major American orchestras’ music directors and executives. Their numbers cover the 2009-10 season. There are a few surprises, and the range is vast.

The data, which was compiled by editor Drew McManus based on the orchestras' IRS 990 Forms, reveals that the average music director compensation decreased 6.77 percent from 2008-09 to 2009-10. For many nonprofits, this was the first season that began to see the effects of the global recession on arts funding.

At the top of the list is the Philadelphia Orchestra, which paid chief conductor Charles Dutoit with $1.83 million. On its heels is the San Francisco Symphony, which gave Michael Tilson Thomas $1.8 million, and the Boston Symphony, giving James Levine $1.3 million.

Below is the top ten list:

1.Philadelphia Orchestra: $1,827,801
2.San Francisco Symphony: $1,801,627
3.Boston Symphony: $1,321,779
4.Dallas Symphony: $1,113,134
5.New York Philharmonic: $1,082,277
6.Cleveland Orchestra: $1,075,204
7.Minnesota Orchestra: $1,035,622
8.Saint Louis Symphony: $954,392
9.Seattle Symphony: $699,048
10.Baltimore Symphony: $685,812

McManus also looks at the top-paid executives in the business. While the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Gustavo Dudamel was missing from the music director tally (his first season with the orchestra), its president and CEO, Deborah Borda, topped the executive list.

1.Los Angeles Philharmonic: $1,397,746
2.New York Philharmonic: $860,210
3.Boston Symphony: $603,171
4.Atlanta Symphony: $593,294
5.San Francisco Symphony: $495,044
6.Chicago Symphony: $482,560
7.Cleveland Orchestra: $460,958
8.Dallas Symphony: $436,670
9.Saint Louis Symphony: $406,327
10.Minnesota Orchestra: $404,049

-------------------------------------------------------------------- Brian Wise

In 2003, Mr. Wise wrote about the Hartford Symphony in the New York Times:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Leonid Sigal and Shostakovich's Violin Concerto

Recently, I attended the Hartford Symphony's season finale, featuring Carmina Burana with the Hartford Chorale. It was great to hear Rick Coffey's singers in splendid form, and a pleasure to see Carolyn Kuan as well, who is bringing her own brand of excitement to the HSO.

Most people were there to hear Carmina; I was there, principally, to hear my friend play Shostakovich. It's a piece I had always wanted to do with Lenny, and was glad to see him finally get to do it on a big stage.

It's a big gamble to open a program with this concerto, as it immediately asks a lot of the audience. From the start, with low strings, probing, we were all drawn in. After hearing some of the finale during the dress rehearsal, I was back to hear the first performance on Thursday, then came back for more on Sunday. Simply put, I could not get enough of it.

My memories of it are strong. My first time with the piece was when Frank Peter Zimmerman played it with Mariss Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony, probably sometime during the 1997-98 season. During the pre-rehearsal -- a time during which conductor and soloist typically go through the piece together so that both are on the same page once they step in front of the orchestra -- they engaged in chit chat, with nary a mention about the concerto. Jansons and Zimmerman were like two old friends who had not seen each other in years. I felt like an intruder, sitting off to the side. Still, I wondered how the rehearsal would go, given how difficult the work is to prepare.

I need not have wondered, for Zimmerman gave a searing performance in the first play-through, and Jansons was with him, lockstep. Still relatively new in his Pittsburgh appointment, Jansons was trying to distance himself from the Russian repertory for which he had become duly well known, electing to do all of the London symphonies of Haydn in his first two seasons, with a healthy dose of Beethoven and Brahms. But somehow this Shostakovich work had slipped into the schedule, and it quickly became evident to the orchestra players why Jansons was so adept at this repertoire. After the play-through, I could see players looking at each other in amazement at what they had just done. This was the kind of playing one expects with a full audience, not for an audience of one.

Several years later, the Pittsburgh Symphony took the work on an Asian tour with Midori, who also played the Bruch G minor. Her playing of the Bruch was quite good, but each time Midori played the Shostakovich, there was a thinly disguised anger that made her performance compelling.

I had always wondered about Midori, whom I had heard for the first time when she was just ten years old. It was a master class at Aspen, circa 1982, with Pinchas Zukerman. Midori was going to play the Bartok concerto. (When I asked Zukerman about this years later, he shouted at me, "You were there!? When her mother told me she was going to play Bartok, I thought, 'yeah, right,' and then she started to play and . . . .") Most girl violinist prodigys (Sarah Chang, Hilary Hahn) grow up to be young women violinists, but Midori, now approaching middle age, still has the aura and appearance of a little girl. With her Shostakovich, I had the sensation that there was a young adult, screaming to get out.

But Leonid Sigal brought an intensity to the work that I found astonishing. With his performance, it was clear he understood the demands on everyone -- not just soloist, conductor and players, but also the audience. And at the onset of the cadenza, a full length movement of its own, just when you thought he could not go any further, Sigal revealed a hyperintensity, unleashed from the orchestra.

Days later, the Shostakovich was still throbbing in my head. Bravo to Carolyn, the Hartford Symphony, and to my dear friend and colleague Leonid Sigal, who continues to amaze me with his musical insight.

Music Camp at The Woodlands

For the past thirteen summers, I have taught music at the Woodlands, an organization dedicated to enriching the lives of children and young adults with disability and chronic illness. The dream began after a Pittsburgh Symphony concert in 1999, in the home of Sydelle Kessler, when Dr. Don Reigle, a retired neurosurgeon, told us of his dream to create a music camp for youngsters with every kind of disability imaginable, and how he thought those of us in the room were just the ones to do it.

And so, in July 2000, Andrew Clark (now Director of Choral Activities at Harvard University), Lucas Richman (Music Director of the Bangor and Knoxville Symphony Orchestras) and I created a curriculum that would include three classes a day -- instruments class, chorus class, and music appreciation. What we did not know at the time was how much these kids would be teaching us.

Each camp has culminated in a concert at the end of the week. A highlight of year one was seeing PSO concertmaster, Andres Cardenes, perform a duet with Anne Marie Suski, a violinist with spina bifida. What the audience did not know was that earlier that day, during a prolonged dress rehearsal in the hot sun, not one camper complained. Instead, the children patiently waited for us to get our act together, while counselors attended to the kids with cold water. As if to proclaim how miraculous these children are, the rainfall at concert time eventually gave way to a rainbow in clear view above the stage. It was a magical conclusion to a magical week.

Except for one year when his daughter was born, Andy Clark has been there every year, leading the camp chorus, with the help of Lily Abreu and Jennifer Klenk. Mary Lou Bushyager took over the instruments class six years ago, and Lucas has taught composition.

Yes, composition. You'd think writing music would be hard enough to teach to students with real talent and no disability. But some of these campers get it into their heads that they can do what Lucas does -- create a song of their own. And so George Casselberry, a youngster whose cerebral palsy forced him to move from the trombone to harmonica, wrote the camp's theme song, performed every year, "Woodlands Music." (By the way, George's aural gifts go beyond perfect pitch -- his ear is so fine that he has helped a local ornithologist find and name a bird heretofore unknown to him!)

Because of the advances in modern day science, we know much more about these campers than we might have one hundred years ago. A Dynavox gives voice to those without any motor skills beyond the movement of their head, allowing one young woman, Sara Pyszka, to co-write a musical with Lucas. (Oh yes, when they last checked, Sara's IQ is somewhere in the territory of 170. She is a beautiful girl, blessed with a smile of enchantment.) Another young man with CP, Mark Steidl, wrote music for the campers promenade last year; this year, celebrating the "America the Beautiful" theme, Mark created a dramatic revolutionary scene where campers played colonial citizens defying the word of George III.

For my daily music appreciation class, I use the first half of the hour to play music mostly unknown to them -- everything from Bach and Beethoven to Copland and Gershwin. For the younger kids, I play Peter and the Wolf. For the older kids, I can discuss everything from variation form to harmonic deception. Then, once they've had their fill of me, I play their music: everything from Lady Gaga and Phil Collins to AC/DC and Taylor Swift. And suddenly, they all stand up (if they can) and rush to the front of class, and . . . . . they dance. Their counselors dance with them, as do I. (You should see some of the kids who do amazing spins in their wheelchairs!)

Some kids have Williams Syndrome, others have Downs, or Fragile X. Some have autism, such as Moscow-born Jane, who played a beautiful rendition of "On a Summer's Day" at the piano. A few take great pains (and pride) in occasionally eschewing their wheelchair for a walker -- not easy to do, given some of the steep walkways on campus. Some campers from past years have since died, such as Tyler (who played a mean tenor sax), or Heather (a sweet girl who loved her clarinet). Bobby had a condition so severe that he laid stomach down on an electric bed. There wasn't ever a time when I saw him without a smile on his face. I miss Bobby.

I love these kids, who teach me so much more about life than I could ever teach them about music. But music is what brings us together, every year, and for that I am so thankful.