Yet Another Feeble WSJ Article on the Met Opera

Goodness.  I don’t have the time to comment on every weak article to come out on the Metropolitan Opera.  By my count, I’ve missed two that have been published in the last six weeks or so.  But a new one has just appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that absolutely demands a response.  While purporting to celebrate a great financial milestone, the piece goes on a rampage of negativity, punctuated by one jaw-dropping statement after another.

Really? Continue reading

Music for Rio—Celebrating the Music of Heitor Villa-Lobos

The Olympic Games are set to open in Rio de Janeiro—the first time a South American country is hosting them.  In honor of this event, I wanted to share a bit of Brazilian culture.

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Brazil is, of course, a major musical center, and has contributed much to the world music scene.  That said, Brazil is most famous for its popular music… dances like the samba or bossa nova.  Brazil’s dance tradition is so magnificent, it’s easy to forget that it has made great contributions to the world of classical music, too.

And while there have been many classically-trained composers over Brazil’s 500-year history, none has had the popularity or impact of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

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Villa-Lobos is a curious character, with a life of contradictions.  He was essentially self-taught, and had a contentious relationship with standard music theory… yet he always aspired to write symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and Grand Opera.  As a boy he scratched out a living as a street musician in Rio de Janiero but ultimately rose to become a national hero. He traveled extensively, but always kept Brazil in his heart.

He was, quite simply, an original.

Getting to know Villa-Lobos’s music is a bit of a challenge.  He was incredibly prolific, writing more than 2,000 works before his death in 1959.  Given the vast quantities of music, some works feel like they were dashed off in a careless rush or tossed off on deadline.  Moreover, he had the reputation of being musically restless—choosing to jump to new works rather than edit those he finished.  In this, he was the mirror opposite of his contemporary Jean Sibelius, who often revised his works so thoroughly that the works he ultimately published were quite different from those heard at the premiere.

The result is that Villa-Lobos’s works can come off as sprawling, riotous and untamed.

But that is exactly why they are so exciting.

At his best, Villa-Lobos was a master of fusing classical forms with the sounds, rhythms, and instruments of Brazil.  His music literally teems with the street sounds of Rio, from bird calls and African street music to the sound of traffic and vendor’s cries. It is music that explodes with vitality and resolutely refuses to be tamed.  Moreover, he was brilliant at creating soundscapes… pulling sounds out of an orchestra that had never been heard before.

Curious to know more?  Here are some recommendations, grouped in a few key categories. Enjoy! Continue reading

Thinking of Ft. Worth—And the Broader Importance of Musicians

Over the past few days I’ve been hit with a strange sense of déjà vu… as well as an impending disaster.  Both these feelings are tied to the ongoing story of the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) and its contentious labor negotiations with its musicians.  Negotiations have drawn on for more than a year, through 29 bargaining sessions, but once again the management refuses to budge.  Once again an orchestra’s management seeks to “right size” its budget through drastic pay cuts borne entirely by the musicians.

Once again an orchestra seeks to cut its way to prosperity.

You’ll immediately understand why this seems so familiar—this ugly scenario closely mirrors similar meltdowns with the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra…

…you get the point.

I was a close observer for many of these battles, and I’ve been horrified that many of the same arguments that animated these disputes are being used in Ft. Worth, too.  Horrified not just because these ideas were wrong, but that they were strategically so ineffective.  For example, Michael Henson of the Minnesota Orchestra and Stanley Romanstein of the ASO tried to impose punitive labor contracts on the orchestra musicians and impose a new business model on their respective organizations, but the community ultimately rebelled against these ham-fisted negotiation techniques, and both Henson and Romanstein were forced out.  Peter Gelb of the Met nearly faced a similar fate; he still holds his job, but is clearly in a weaker position.

Given this record of failure, I’m curious that anyone else would want to try this same approach.

But there’s something else I want to bring up.

Let’s leave off, for a moment, the particulars of this contentious labor negotiation.  Let’s put aside ideas about unions, incompetent management, or the idea of “winning.”

In pushing forth a harsh, punitive contract, the FWSO management is damaging the community as a whole.  And that damage will last even—and especially—if it “wins” this round of contract negotiations.

Let me explain. Continue reading

Remembering Rautavaara and His Music

Today I learned some sad news—the passing of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara at age 87.  I’m saddened by the loss, as he was not just a brilliant composer, but one of my favorites.  Long-time readers may remember that I’ve referenced his music many times here on my blog, and included his Angel of Light symphony on my list of the greatest works of the 20th century.

I first ran across his music through a recording of his breakout hit, Symphony No. 7, Angel of Light.  It was one of those gripping works that, while thoroughly modern, was written in a thoroughly approachable manner and contained a profound, palpable spirituality.  I started tracking down other works, which was made easy by the heroic efforts of the Finnish label Ondine—a company committed to releasing recordings of his new works nearly as soon as the ink was dry on the page.

As I’ve mentioned before, I had the good fortune to hear the world premiere of his Harp Concerto in 2000, performed by none other the Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra.  It was Osmo’s first performance with the Orchestra, some years before being appointed Music Director.  The inclusion of a world premiere by one of my favorite composers, coupled with a performance of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony (one of my all-time favorite works of music) sealed the deal for me; even though I was living in Kansas at the time, I drove eight hours each way to hear the concert, and felt it was more than worth it.

Rautavaara’s career spanned many decades, and encompassed many different styles. To honor his life and music, allow me to share a few recommendations, for those who might wish to know him better. Continue reading

Help Send Song of the Lark to Europe!

A year ago (good God, can it already be a year ago?) my readers and supporters made it possible for me to travel with the Minnesota Orchestra on their historic tour to Cuba, and write about my experiences there.  I remain profoundly grateful to my readers for their generosity, and hope everyone approved of the resulting coverage (which is compiled here, and continues to be read today).

Well, it is with profound happiness that I announce that Emily Hogstrad—a sister blogger at “Song of the Lark”—has a similar opportunity to travel with the Minnesota Orchestra on its tour to Europe.  Congratulations, Emily!

Am I a tad jealous?  Sure—my family hails from Finland, and a return trip there remains on my bucket list.  And I would love to see some of the other stops as well, including Amsterdam’s legendary Concertgebouw.  But Emily has more than earned this trip, and given her always fascinating insights into the world of classical music, I await her reports with excited excitement.

And you can help make this happen.

Emily has set up a GoFundMe page where supporters can provide support for her trip.  In the strongest possible terms, I urge you to go to the page and make a contribution if you can.  You will not just be supporting one of the most original, passionate writers in the musical world, you’ll be striking a blow for community-based writing, too.  At a time when so many major publications or news outlets are abandoning coverage of cultural events, voices like Emily’s are critically important. You can be a hero that makes her kind of audience- and community-focused writing possible.

So please join me in contributing to Emily’s fund.  You won’t regret it for a moment!

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Xochipilli

 

 

 

Grief for Istanbul—and the Indifference that Followed

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This week, the “unimaginable” happened… yet again.  A small group of terrorists launched a vicious attack against civilians in a major metropolitan area… yet again.  Istanbul.

The visions of the carnage were unbearable, just as they were in Paris, Brussels, or the attack in Orlando last month.

But for me, this attack was perhaps more disturbing. Continue reading

Clichés Abound in WSJ’s Analysis of the Met Opera

And I have officially had it.

Yesterday Terry Teachout published a story in the Wall Street Journal that casts a long glance at the problems the Metropolitan Opera is currently facing.  And I’m fairly confident my scream of frustration could be heard all the way in Manhattan.

I don’t want to bash Mr. Teachout, whom I’ve never met.  I don’t wish to disparage his writing, his obvious experience, or even knowledge of the arts.  I should also point out that we’re in full agreement that Mr. Gelb has run out of ideas about how to run the Met, either artistically or organizationally.

But I must take issue with this article.  Unfortunately, it tosses around every wrong-headed cliché about the arts and arts management that I’ve been trying to put to rest since my blog’s inception, including Baumol’s cost disease, an outdated report from the NEA, and the use of paid capacity to measure financial success.

How is it that demonstratably false ideas can take such a powerful hold on our collective consciousness?

While I can’t take up this larger question, I can certainly rebuff the points of this specific article. Continue reading