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Summer UPDATE!

After a mad few weeks, I’m at home again, getting ready for the fall season.

A few things:

Recently: I conducted Prokofiev’s 4th Symphony a few weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it. It was music that Prokofiev thought was so nice that he wrote it thrice. First as the Ballet The Prodigal Son, then as a Symphony in the 30’s and then again as a Symphony in 1947. In the second version of the symphony he amped it up, adding linking motivic material and expanding almost all parts. I can see why he loved the music so much. The material is optimistic and sunny and witty, and incredibly creative in its orchestration. Every instrument reaches into an extended range to great effect, creating this expanded sound universe, whose extended tentacles caress you, drawing you in. Alien and sexy! The second movement is especially beautiful tracing the Prodigal Son’s return and reconciliation, with a full-on C Major romantic melody. I love this symphony! Check it out.

Summer Reading: Just finished The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson: an epic, harrowing, Dickensian novel set in North Korea (?!). I’m also going to read Anna Karenina and Andrew Sean Greer’s The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, and I’m sure some music books. Oh I also read a JACK REACHER book.

Coming Up: I think the biggest, weirdest project coming up is a soon-to-be announced concert with an orchestra about music and DRUGS, basically. More in this space soon. Also very excited about bringing our Nicole Lizée and Dan Deacon commissions from the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony to Koerner Hall. This may become our next recording.

Also conducting Tchaikovky’s 6th Symphony for the first time. That’s a biggie. AND: Cowell’s 4th and Synchrony & Lou Harrison’s Second Symphony with BBC Wales, Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, Ligeti, and Dvorak with the San Francisco Symphony, a very interesting and cool concert with Chicago Symphony MusicNOW, the KWS Quantum Physics Show goes to the Indianapolis Symphony and more. It will all be up soon on the schedule page.

Been there, done that

Hey, it’s 2013! The last few months had more than a few highlights. Lots of music by composers who are currently alive and lots of messing around with concert formats by me and others. Some examples:

KWS Intersections – we played Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snyder, and sung by Shara Worden. What a piece! It’s about mental illness, war, loss, alienation, hope, anger, redemption … you know, the BIG STUFF. It seamlessly combines rock and classical idioms into a piece with real emotional depth. Every orchestra should play this piece right now.

concert:nova Cincinnati – HK Grubers Frankenstein!!, Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony, Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1 in the abandoned Emery Theatre, with a side cabaret performance at a supper club, and freaky slides commissioned especially for the concert. Awesome.

Chicago Symphony MusicNOW – Mason Bates and Anna Clyne have tweaked and finally perfected how they present music in this series. Specific lighting, stage moves, ambient music between pieces, video program notes and interviews (even when the composers are present), all make the music come alive in the frankly too-big Harris Theater. Bravo to the Chicago Symphony for investing in music and stagecraft.

River Oaks Chamber Orchestra – Alecia Lawyer and Co. in Houston start their concerts 6pm, with no intermission, and provide childcare! Yes, uncompromising artistry (my soloist was Paul Jacobs) can be combined with family-friendly accessibility. I’ve never seen anything like this. Maybe the most innovative orchestra in America.

KWS Mahler 5 – we put together spoken introduction to the piece with video and excerpts that made up the entire 20-min first half of the concert. It was all done completely in-house, lowest possible budget using Prezi presentation software. It was good! We didn’t say “we can’t do this, it’s too expensive.” We made it work.

NYC Ballet Nutcracker – Nothing new here. This has been the same since Balanchine created it in the 1950’s. But ritual can be good, and it’s important to remember if you’re going to change something, you’ve got to make it better.

To an audience

The KW Symphony asked me to write a note to our audience for our upcoming Mahler 5 concert. Here’s what I wrote:

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in California, kids riding bikes outside the house, waves breaking on the beach, but there I am again, holed up in my room, listening to the music of Gustav Mahler. I don’t know what this says about me and the kind of teenager I was, but it does say a lot about the power of Mahler’s music. I remember hearing it for the very first time, and how it seemed to encompass a vast psychological space. How time seemed to completely stop, or speed up. How I was carried along by the music as if I were on a raft floating down a wide, turbulent river. The overwhelming emotion of the music captivated me. The tears, suffering and transcendence contained in these symphonies hinted at joy and heartbreak I had yet to experience. In these symphonies, I felt an uncanny power: the sounds themselves made me vibrate like a tuning fork with unexperienced emotion. My own nascent feelings and perceptions were amplified through Mahler, and left me breathless, tearful, elated.

Years later I feel the same power. But now, Mahler seems now to amplify emotions I experienced in the past. Certain passages bring back memories of people who have come and gone in life, delicate memories of childhood, rage which burned out long ago, the dizziness of unrequited love. In his symphonies, Mahler lays out a vast world of sound, memory and emotion, and inevitably we find ourselves somewhere on his map. As public and grand as his works are, they are also shockingly intimate. They speak to our inner life, our hidden feelings and perceptions. By amplifying these feelings Mahler reminds us all how much our lives actually matter, right now.

So here you are, in the audience, about to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. You’ve reached the end of the day, you’re relaxing in your seat. But soon there will be a trumpet call, and then … cataclysm! Mahler’s world is about to crash down on you. You’ll hear sound of an entire orchestra baring their souls and then you’ll begin your journey. First, an epic lament and then the search for meaning, following a winding path of grief, rage, confusion, childhood memories, love, and giddiness, disappointment, and joy, all expressed through pure sound. At times you will feel lost, at other times you will hear things that hit home. You will feel your own life amplified by Mahler’s music, as if this composer has somehow read your mind, and your heart.

So here we go. The concert is about to begin. Thank you for being here. Now, get ready.


Cincinnati Music Hall has a “paranormal” section in its Wikipedia entry. Built in 1876 over what was previously an orphanage, a lunatic asylum, and a paupers’ cemetery, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said this place has a certain … vibe. Even the skeptics here seem to acknowledge that weird happenings are more likely than not. “I’ve never seen anything personally,” they say, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw that little boy running around here at some point.” As I go to rehearsal, riding up strange dark escalators (which seem incongruous in such an old, Gothic building), I feel like I’m in the right place for a performance of Maria de Buenos Aires.

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, I’m into the idea of the performing artist as conjurer. We’re obsessed with the ghosts of composers and old styles of music. As we open our books and play or sing the notes written by dead people, unspoken energy is passed among the musicians and the spirit of the composer is brought back to life in real time, ritualistically. And we all know that feeling, when the performance is really good: it’s uncanny. This conjuring that we attempt in music is an old idea, much older than the music itself. Do I believe in ghosts and spirits? Maybe … but I do believe in the conjuring energy.

Maria de Buenos Aires is all about this. In fact, the tango itself is a spirit here, a beautiful woman who walks the streets, is born, killed, and reborn. She causes people to fall in love, to rape and murder, to create, to destroy. She shakes people out of indifference into a heightened, sensual, primal state. In other words, she’s hot. Of course, this is the spirit of the tango itself. We all know the rhythm – it’s hot as well. But what astonishes me about tango is the minor-key energy that gives the rhythm its color. You could call it dark eroticism, but there’s more to it than that. It’s a mournfulness, a sense that it’s already over while it’s happening, that it’s an echo. This is what makes the tango one of the most haunted forms of music I know. When we do enter the rare major-key zones of the opera, they’re jarring. It doesn’t feel quite right, and as a listener one feels a bit like a vampire cast out into the sun. This also happens to Maria’s shadow as she’s exiled to walk the streets during the day, seeking protection in the shadows of the trees and chimneys.

The eroticism, darkness, mournfulness, and nostalgia of the tango create a unique conjuring power: they irresistibly turn the performers AND listeners into … creatures of the night.

It’s a special kind of fun to be one of the conjurers of this energy. I’m glad we’re performing this opera in the ballroom of a haunted hall, and I’m relieved that there’s no matinée, so when we all walk out of the hall, it won’t be into the light, but into the night and its mysteries.


Think of Mozart as a comedy writer. Yes, he wrote some drama too, but overall, not that much. If you look through his work, you’ll find a G minor symphony or string quintet here and there, or a D minor piano concerto, but the rest is pretty Major key, pretty sunny. Of the operas, a few are serious, like Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito, and a bit of Don Giovanni, but mostly it’s a lot of situation comedies, mistaken identities, costumes, goofy bird catchers, right? The strange thing is, we take Mozart very seriously for someone who wrote mostly comedy. Few comedy writers in any genre are so revered. We might think of Haydn in terms of comedy — but Mozart?

There are two reasons for this. One is that beauty and perfection are the things that strike us first in Mozart’s music. This is true especially now, hundreds of years later, that the subversive elements in his music have lost some of their social and sonic impact. In terms of beauty, Mozart’s music is unmatched: the perfect melodies, the flawless structure, the warm, singing timbre of everything he wrote. Music is the most sensual of the arts, and the pure, miraculous beauty of his work casts a spell on us, and that spell can sometimes hide its other qualities.

We also tend to forget Mozart that worked in comedy because he used it for such serious purposes. The power of comedy is that it disarms and equalizes. When we laugh, we are outside of ourselves. Father and child, king and peasant, friend and enemy can be united, even just for a moment, with laughter. Mozart knew this about comedy and used it expertly. Think of his operas: they entertain and play over a period of hours, but we all remember those moments when, out of nowhere, he suddenly lands the sucker punch and we’re knocked out! Our hearts pound, and tears well up when we hear the Count’s pleading apology to the Countess at the end of Le nozze di Figaro, or when we hear the trio at the beginning of Così fan tutte that seems to bid farewell to honesty itself. Mozart uses comedy to get our guard down before he hits us with the real stuff. And when these moments do come, they are moments of truth and humanity, moments so strong that they break social and family conventions. In one instance, a philandering husband apologizes to his wife; in another, a young woman breaks free of her screaming, oppressive mother. In Mozart, maximum truth equals maximum beauty, and these moments of truth can be found throughout his works, whether they have words or not.

Hours of elegant farce, leading to a few big moments. It feels familiar. Mozart’s music is a metaphor for our lives. After all, if we add up the minutes of how we live, how many of them are truly serious? Don’t we spend most of our time making elegant, pleasant, witty maneuvers that allow us to get through the day unscathed, and allow to coexist peacefully with our fellow humans? And when the big moments of truth do arrive in our lives, don’t they seem to come out of nowhere, to knock us out, to change us, in an instant, forever?

Xenakis on Computing

Xenakis kind of describes what’s happening in our concerts this weekend:

“With the aid of electronic computers, the composer becomes a sort of pilot. He presses the buttons, introduces coordinates, and supervises the controls of a cosmic vessel sailing in the space of sound, across sonic constellations and galaxies that he could formerly glimpse only as a distant dream. Now he can explore them at his ease seated in an armchair.”

What Just Happened

It’s been a particularly fun 2012 so far … at the KWS, Prokofiev 5 and Brahms Violin concerto with Vadim Gluzman, who is the best; an all-Zappa concert with concert:nova in Cincinnati; 7 hours on Radio Wales in one day with the BBC NOW; the complete Mother Goose at New World; and back at the KWS, more Mother Goose, Bolero, a Nico Muhly commission and premiere, and Jason Vieaux, who is great, playing Rodrigo.

But can we talk about Ravel for just a minute? There was a lot of discussion this week about Mother Goose. It was nice to know that other people besides me think that the last movement of Mother Goose is the best thing ever. It completely changed my life the first time I heard it. It raised the bar for what music can do. What’s great about it? The sustained, tender and beautiful sound throughout, the Bach-worthy voice leading, the mix of joy, nostalgia and regret, the yearning solos in the violin and viola, the countdown in the 2nd horn and harp leading to the final climax, the extra, transcendent moment at the end when the percusion stops and the strings and winds play on, unwilling to let go. Is there a better three minutes of orchestral music?

After Mother Goose, we played Nico’s piece, which was great. If you didn’t get to hear it in Seattle, Winnipeg, or here in KW, I hope you can hear it soon. It’s called So Far So Good. Nico and I did a bunch of talks together around the concerts and one thing really struck me in particular. Talking about his connection to liturgical music and how it plays out in his own work, Nico described the music really being about a series of small changes alluding to something greater and unspecific. In religious terms, some greater mystery. I think this piece did that very well. It left me with a certain feeling and many players in the orchestra felt the same — it left us with something to contemplate. I also appreciate the opportunites in Nico’s music to be expressive. There’s weight and meaning to each pitch, and that’s what we’ve worked so hard to bring out as musicians — to make the music speak.

Speaking of greater mysteries, this coming week is our collaboration with the Institute for Quantum computing on our Intersections Series. More about that soon, but this project was two years in the making and I’m excited about it. What I can tell you right now is that there is Mozart, Webern, Ives, Cage, Brant, and Xenakis involved.


Interesting ARTICLE by Tom Service in the Guardian today about Pierre Boulez.  Including this quote:

“That’s the central achievement of Boulez’s music. Like no one else has managed to do in music before, he has turned timbre – the texture and grain of the way instruments sound, and the special, surreal possibilities of electronic music – into a carrier of feeling and emotion. Previously, western music was all about pitch, rhythm, and harmony: the traditional routes to creating musical expression. Boulez adds another dimension to what music can do, and his works open up a new way of hearing. If you surrender yourself to his music, you can’t help but be intoxicated by its sonic fantasy  … “

I wonder if this is a new way of hearing at all.  It got me thinking about my work with DANIEL LEVITIN last year on our BEETHOVEN AND YOUR BRAIN. I think one of the most interesting things I got out of working with someone who is interested in the science of listening was learning how important timbre actually is.  It’s the first thing we respond to as listeners, before rhythm, melody and harmony. It is, in fact, our most primal reaction to music.  I think musicologists made western music “about” pitch, rhythm and harmony because that’s how most music is intellectually put together (this is true of Boulez’s music as well).  Timbre is the elephant in the room.  No one writes or even really talks about it, but it’s pervasive and it’s the way music hits listeners at the outset.

I think Boulez’s music, and other similar music, does focus us on timbre by eliminating most possibilities of expectation or pattern recognition as far as rhythm, melody, harmony.  It makes the experience of listening similar to walking through an unknown and beautiful space, and being acutely aware of every sound, twitter, drop of water, rustling leaf.  It might be a new way of hearing, but it’s also an ancient one.


I think of programming the same way a composer or poet might think of creating something. It’s about setting up expectations and either satisfying or subverting them. This can be done on a single program, or over a season, or over a number of seasons. One must always keep in mind that an audience member is coming to a concert expecting something. My job is to begin at this point of expectation, and take the audience member somewhere else.

In orchestras our great Advantage and also our great Albatross is tradition. It’s twelve hundred years of music, and the rituals that go along with it. We can gnash our teeth at how conservative things are and fight against it, or have fun with tradition and play with it.

What’s fun, and more than fun, is where these subversive moves can take us. For instance, last week at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony we premiered a piece by the Canadian composer Brian Current called Whirling Dervish. Some intense music was played while the Canadian Whirling Dervish Raqib Brian Burke performed the ritual in front of the orchestra. If you haven’t seen it, the ritual looks like this.

At the end of the piece (after twenty minutes or so) Raqib suddenly stops whirling, and lies down on the floor. His assistant covers him with a blanket for a long moment, and then the two of them exit the stage walking backward, facing the audience. Then the orchestra and I leave the stage. We asked the audience not to applaud, just to be silent, and go to the lobby for intermission. It was profound, that silence, in all sorts of ways. What was amazing to me was the way one ritual (Whirling) respectfully subverted another (Orchestra Concert Etiquette).

Talking with Raqib after the performances brought the experience to another level altogether. Raqib talked about how the Whirling ceremony opened the door to another liminal reality and “summoned the ancestors.” Isn’t that really what we do in classical music concerts? In a concert that’s really great, don’t we feel Mozart, or Ives, or Mahler in the room? Isn’t this really why we play these great pieces over and over again? Isn’t one definition of a revolution that it begins and ends in the same place? We’re back where we started but things have changed.

New Season

So we did a concert just the way I like it last week. The first half was Beethoven Consecration of the House Overture (yes it IS a good piece) and Symphony No. 1. Then instead of doing the next curtain call, I sent out our guest cabaret performer ISENGART to announce the second half: Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins (with Measha Bruegguergosman who was a-maz-ing). He urged the audience to have a stiff drink at intermission so that they would “come back nice and tight.” Another suggestion: “If you see something you like in the lobby, give it a little pinch …” In the second half, before Seven Deadly Sins, he sang a couple of Kurt Weill songs including Mack The Knife, to kind of set things up. These little cues from Isengart really made this thing work. We didn’t need a four camera crew, just a little creativity and willing artists. It also confirms my suspicion that playing with the “concert format” is the way to go. We need to do more of this. I think we need a new slogan along the lines of Michael Pollan’s “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” Something like … “Play Real Music. Update The Format. Don’t Be Boring.” By the way, Isengart has another persona I would like to share called the FOOD COMMANDER. CLICK THE LINK. REALLY.

Also would you like to know about the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s new season? Watch the video below … We’ve got a concert about quantum physics, a Nico Muhly premiere, two Liszt concertos in one concert, a concerto by Nicky Lizée based on the music of Rush, you know … the usual.