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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.

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.

Musique concrète

Someone should write a piece about Dad Noises.  Example:


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.

Summer Reading

I love summer. I was on the beach yesterday, and it was beautiful, sunny, breezy. After the beach, I went home and watched a few auditions for an upcoming project on Skype. Skype auditions! I was relaxed at home in my chair, in front of my computer, the summer breeze was blowing through the window. I didn’t have to go anywhere, I felt wonderfully lazy, and it was great.

Summer! It’s evening as I write this, and outside, there are two comfortable chairs on the front porch, there is a hammock on the roof deck, there is fresh mint growing in a planter for making a pitcher of lemonade, or mojitos. This mint is growing so aggressively that I feel forced to make a cocktail out of it, for the sake of the other herbs. These are the things that are calling to me.

And reading. In summer, it’s the best.

Have you read …

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis? This is one of the few truly funny novels. Funny like A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s about this guy who is handed a pamphlet which contains the Secrets of Atlantis. Or maybe they’re just scribbles and triangles. The guy, Jimmerson, believes that with this information, he’s ready to start a religion. One sect spins off into another, they gather new eccentric members: dandies, con-men, large men with pulsating mustaches, and no women, really. They perform rituals, they argue, they split up, they write nasty pamphlets about each other, they go to a mobile home compound in Texas for an exciting finale. Portis wrote True Grit, and has a way with words, particularly descriptions of strange people and strange things that are strangely familiar.

Stoner by John Williams? No, not that John Williams. No, not that kind of Stoner. Stoner is a farmer’s son from Missouri who falls in love with literature, becomes a college professor, and has a fairly disappointing life. He marries the wrong woman, gets embroiled in English Department politics, never really amounts to much. But he’s a kind of hero. The story of Stoner’s life is told at a brisk pace, hitting the various low points (and a high point or two) chapter by chapter. Again, like Portis, the sentences are beautiful, the descriptions are unblinking, stark, but somehow poetic. The situations are gripping and almost unbearably frustrating. The novel is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. The author described it as “an escape into reality,” and it is, a most surprising and touching kind of escapism.

I really loved those two books. Right now I’m reading The Information by James Glieck, which is a history of information. Talking Drums, Telegraphs, Dictionaries, The Internet, and more. It looks at the world from a new angle, and fills me with wonder every time I pick it up. He’s also a great writer, and I’m reading it slowly … using it as training for a concert coming up next season with scientists from the Institute for Quantum Computing. I’m expanding my brain with this one.

Along with Glieck, I’ll be reading a few beach novels, Scando-Crime, probably. I can’t get enough of that stuff. The cultures are so organized that the murders seem especially gruesome. Kind of like when an Alien pops out of someone in a clean, sanitary operating room.


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.

On Dan Deacon

The KW Symphony and I did a concert a few weeks ago with
Dan Deacon. Here’s a little bit about the process:

Working with Dan Deacon was a blast of chaotic, creative, mischievous energy.  He’s interested in new sounds and new experiences, in creating the childlike sense of wonder and joy when you experience something for the first time.  That’s the game underlying a lot of “experimental” or “avant-garde” music: the joy of discovery.  I think when people are put off by new sounds it’s because they’re no longer in touch with their inner child.

During this collaboration Dan was discovering something himself, something very old: the symphony orchestra and all its rules, traditions and rank and regimentation.  It was hilarious and kind of terrifying watching Dan rediscover orchestras (“I haven’t written for humans in years!” he told me).  I can only imagine how feverishly he worked trying to create these scores. The process he went through to notate orchestral sounds was beyond complicated. Despite all of his hard work, the project had to be saved by me, the library and production staff, and our stalwart copyist, Trevor Wagler, in the weeks and days before the first rehearsal. Many protocols were broken!  

But who cares?  I loved that we were teaming up to make something work, instead of getting together and complaining about it!  In the end, the music was all Dan’s.  I wanted to work with Dan because I believe that he’s onto something as a musician.  I think he appreciates orchestras for what they can do. I think he’s got great ears and a strong sense of composition in the long form.  And, most importantly, he really knows how to reach people with his music, how to make them feel the joy of discovery.  The orchestra world could really use him. And now we’ve got him.  Here’s to more new sounds and experiences!  

Nielsen in Texas

Folks I’m in EL PASO, TEJAS this week. I Can See Mexico From My House! Or out my hotel window. I’m having a great time here, partly because I’m getting to conduct a piece I really love that never gets done, and that’s Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, the so called “Espansiva.” What a piece! I know people like No. 4 and No. 5, and they are more ambitious and serious perhaps, but I’ve always thought of Nielsen as a humorous composer, at least that’s the part I like the most about him. In this piece, he’s like a Nordic Haydn on Steroids, starting off with an amazing Eroica joke, playing ridiculous games with keys, backwards phrasing, odd orchestration, surprise singers, and folksy dances. In the last movement you can feel this kind of Nordic Step Dancing going on for sure. The orchestra is rising to the challenge and digging the music as far as I can tell. Maybe because it was below zero (F) in El Paso last week and now they can relate to the Idea of North.

I’m also looking forward to some desert hikes, Mexican food, and some Old West. Someone even told me they have great vintage typography(!) here, so I’ll keep an eye out for that (Actually, I’m watching the Helvetica movie on my iPad every night before I go to sleep. It’s really interesting but I can’t actually stay awake for too long watching it. It is, after all, about a font. There’s only so much one can do.)

Also, have you been checking out the latest Twitter conversation about orchestral programming? It’s called “Dead White Guys.” (#DWG), which is what we play a lot.
I chimed in a few times. The thing is, when we play concerts of living white guys, or dead other kinds of people, we get our most passionate audiences I think. They’re just small audiences. The question is, how do orchestras define success? If an orchestra wants to “grow” an audience, doesn’t that naturally imply that one starts small? At the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony we’re so lucky to have a space for small audiences (the Conrad Centre), so the small-audience concerts feel great. It’s from there that we can begin to grow.

Holiday Dispatch

Happy Holidays!  It’s really cold!  I can’t get my car out of the driveway because it’s too icy (I bought the car in San Francisco, not knowing I was destined to move to colder climes, so it’s NOT MY FAULT).

Despite the cold, I’m really in the holiday spirit and listening to a lot of XMAS music.  I’m most excited about Annie Lennox.  I mean, check this out!

Right?  Weirdly intense and freaky … but fun!  Annie L is one of the singers who can, on specific songs, make me cry in 30 seconds.  Also: k.d. lang, Stevie Wonder “Blame It On The Sun” got me all misty on an airplane last week.

That airplane embarked from Miami, I think, where I got to conduct the New World Symphony and hear the orchestra sound check their amazing new hall.  Stay tuned . It really is unlike any concert space I have ever seen.  Yes, it’s Frank Gehry etc., but what excites me is how MODULAR it is!  4 small stages around the audience!  Seats that fold up!  Lots of video cameras and walls/screens for projection!  The future is now!  This may help Classical Music!

Finally, this passage, by James Wood, from the New Yorker, dated November 29, 2010.  It’s about how he wanted to be a rock star but had to learn Classical Music instead.

“Nowadays, I see schoolkids bustling along the sidewalk, their large instrument cases strapped to them like coffins, and I know the weight of their obedience.  Happy obedience too: that cello or French horn brings lasting joy, and a repertoire more demanding and subtle than rock music’s.  But fuck the laudable ideologies, as Roth’s Mickey Sabbath puts it: subtlety is not freedom, and it is rebellious freedom that one wants, and, most of the time, only rock can deliver it.  And sometimes one despises oneself, in near-middle age, for being so good.”

Despite his many thoughtful qualifying statements, I smell a Grinch.  What professor Wood became after his oppressed childhood was neither a Classical nor Rock musician, but a Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard.  That title would be enough to make anyone grumpy, so I’ll forgive him. I think I can say with some authority that one can find rebellious freedom in Classical music.  I’ve conducted Mahler symphonies and performed with Al Jourgensen playing “She’s So Heavy.” (things were smashed).  And as a musician I’ve learned not to denigrate  one type of music in favor of another, because I know how much work it takes to be any kind of musician, especially a good one. It’s something that people who talk about music can’t seem to figure out: it’s all good.  So, prof. Wood, turn on some Andriessen for the holidays, and you’ll feel much better.