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A Man in Blue

… The grass

rough cropped as Bruno Walter’s hair,

is stretched, strewn and humped beneath a sycamore

wide and high as an idea of heaven

in which Brahms turns his face like a bearded thumb

and says, “There is something I must tell you!”

to Bruno Walter. “In the first movement

of my Second, think of it as a family

planning where to go next summer

in terms of other summers. A material ecstasy,

subdued, recollective.”

James Schuyler

imagining things means

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
-Wallace Stevens

On Agnes Martin

I remember that her work posed a lot of questions. I went to her studio eventually and bought a drawing. I remember asking myself what the difference was between graph paper and Agnes’s grids. Eventually I decided that it had to do with the difference between the loved line and the unloved line. – Richard Tuttle




This week’s concerts were full of adventure and risk. I went in with that intention, sharing one of my favorite Nikolaus Harnoncourt quotes in rehearsal:

“To be beautiful, music must operate on the outer fringes of catastrophe.”

It was fortuitous that Ben Beilman joined us this week with the same agenda. His clear priority, above all, was to express something dark, deep, and transcendent. It’s rare to feel that kind of daring in a concerto performance.

That sense of risk, adventure, is what makes all the difference.



art begins

We know that humans began making art about 50,000 years ago. Bones and tusks were made into carvings, with no practical purpose.  Something happened in the development of the human brain that compelled us to do this.

But what? What compelled us to carve what we saw into a mammoth tusk? Were we now conscious, needing to find our place in the world? Did we feel a sense of separation and loss from the natural world surrounding us? Is all art the result of leaving the Garden of Eden?


dark don

I wondered this week about a dark Don Quixote: someone whose mind is muddled, whose head is swirling not with books of chivalry and heroism, but rather with endless, rapid flow of cable news; someone who charges ahead on an undefined quest, driven by the illusion of who knows what; someone who flies through the air, and wears a distorted costume of industry and virility, the uniform of “a man who gets things done.” He tilts at windmills, but in this story the windmills are real giants, real armies.

That Crazy Week of New Music in San Francisco


Leaving chilly Chicago this afternoon for a week to remember in San Francisco. There’s a huge density of new music in SF coming up:

Tonight, Philip Glass Etudes at Davies with the composer, Timo Andres, Maki Namekawa.

Thomas Adès conducts the San Francisco Symphony with Dawn Upshaw and Kirill Gerstein in subscription concerts, featuring In Seven Days.

The new SoundBox venue is curated by me and Nathaniel Stookey this weekend. The program, called “Farther Out,”  features music by Terry Riley, Nat himself, Lisa Bielawa, Oliver DiCiccio, and a big world premiere by Nicole Lizée.

The venerable Other Minds  festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend featuring music by Lou Harrision, Charles Amirkhanian, Miya Masaoka, Peter Sculthorpe, Maja Ratkje & Frode Haltli.

I’m going to be in SoundBox for a lot of the week so I’m sorry I can’t catch everything, but I’m very happy to be part of the music coming out of SF this week!


The Soloists of Summer


Before we begin NEXT SEASON I want to thank the music gods for great soloists!  I got to work with some amazing people this summer in San Francisco as Director of Summer Concerts.  Not only classical powerhouses like Simon Trpčeski, but also the next generation, like the fantastic young violinist Benjamin Beilman. Have you heard him play?  He’s great!

I also helped put together a concert with Cheyenne Jackson (from 30 Rock, Glee, Broadway, and the SF Symphony’s recent amazing recording of West Side Story).  He invited Broadway legend Faith Prince, with whom I had a vibe.  We will meet onstage again someday.

But some of the most memorable soloists were from unexpected places.  Makoto Ozone joined us for Rhapsody in Blue.  If you don’t know Makoto, he is a heavy jazz player who can play classical repertoire, which is kind of amazing because he’s self-taught.  I asked him how he learned the Gershwin, and other pieces like Mozart “Jeunehomme,” and Prokofiev 3rd(!).  His answer? “Very slowly.”  The results speak for themselves.  He blew our collective minds. After the Gershwin, we teamed him up with a combo of SFS musicians (Mark Inouye – trumpet, Jake Nissly – drums, and Scott Pingel – bass) for a Ravel set.  They played Ravel’s Pavane and Bolero along with the orchestra, improvising in between (Pavane) and over (Bolero) Ravel’s music.  Badass.

The other x-factor was drag queen Courtney Act.  (Say it with an Australian accent, and you’ll get it: “caught in the act.”) She had never sung with orchestra, ever. Her challenge was to sing the “Elephant Love Medley” from Moulin Rouge with Cheyenne, and she nailed it. She came in flawlessly prepared, and sang beautifully. Such nerve and poise I have rarely seen, but I guess you need it for RuPaul’s drag race.

Anyway, both these folks should be part of your orchestra’s worlds, but you may not have heard of them yet.  Here are two videos!!

Courtney’s SF Symphony experience:


And here’s Makoto Rhaposdising with the NY Phil:





A letter from Rousseau


April 1st, 1910

Dear Monsieur,

I reply immediately to your friendly letter in order to explain the motive for the location of the sofa in question.  This woman sleeping on this sofa dreams that she is transported into the middle of this forest, hearing the notes of the charmer’s pipe.  This gives the motive for the sofa being in the picture.  I thank you for your kind appreciation, and if I have kept my naïveté, it is because M. Gérôme, who was a professor at the Beaux-Arts, as well as M. Clément, director of the Beaux-Arts at the Ecole de Lyon, always told me to keep it.  You will no longer find that amazing in the future.  And I have been told before that I was not of this century.  I will not now be able to change my manner which I have acquired by stubborn application, believe me.  I finish my note by thanking you in advance for the article you will write on me and pray you to accept my deepest sentiments, as well as a good cordial handshake.

Henri Rousseau,


2 bis, rue Perrel (14e)

On Brahms 2

The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony has asked my to write short letters to our subscribers about the music coming up.  They’re fun to write!  Here’s a short letter about Brahms’s Symphony No. 2, which we’ll be playing in a few weeks.

Brahms wrote of his Second Symphony, “It is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.” Brahms was joking. It is a pastoral work, written one summer by a beautiful lake. It’s an exhale after the tremendous weight and anxiety of influence Brahms felt following Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with his own First. At times serene, at times jovial, it rarely lingers on the overtly melancholy. But everything Brahms says has many layers of meaning. I love reading over Brahms’s letters to Clara Schumann and others. The close readings of the scores they send each other, the care with which they craft their responses is a lost art today. Often a line is ironic several times over. So I wonder if Brahms was really happy when he wrote this symphony, whether there was some irony within irony here. Brahms lived his life without companionship, only with an endlessly yearning love for Clara Schumann. As he ages his works become increasingly inward, lonely, and final. I don’t think Brahms’s music is possible without sadness. Even the Second Symphony, one of his sunniest works, seems filled at its most beautiful moments with an overwhelming awareness that this beauty will pass. This feeling of temporality saddens the pastoral atmosphere, but this sadness is somehow more real and satisfying to me, happier. So many levels of meaning, whispering like leaves in a summer breeze.