Classical Music’s Monster Mothers: An Anti-Mother’s Day Playlist

As Mother’s Day draws near, a number of music commentators have put forth lovely little playlists of appropriate music  for the holiday.  I myself have assembled one, found here.  These lists tend to abound in tender, gentle, loving pieces… perfect to celebrate the perfect mom.

But you know, as I was assembling my list I realized something was amiss…not everyone’s mom is perfect.  Where’s a list paying homage to those monster moms? A list for those who spend Mother’s Day cowering in therapy?

Not to worry—I’ve got you covered.

Here’s an irreverent classical playlist, full of moms who will make the your difficult mother look great by comparison.

Happy [sic] Mother’s Day! Continue reading

Classical Music for Cinco de Mayo

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

It’s a curious holiday with a curious history—it commemorates the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, between the Mexican army and invading French forces sent by Napoleon III, who hoped to conquer the country and bring it into France’s orbit.

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The French troops landed at Veracruz and marched inland toward Mexico City. Mexican forces, who had been beaten badly in a series of skirmishes, retreated back to the heavily fortified city of Puebla.  The French commander, believing he could end the Mexicans’ resistance with a single stroke, chose to attack the city from the north.  It was a costly mistake.  The Mexican defenders held, and as the French pulled back Mexican cavalry flanked them and turned the retreat into a rout.

The world expected the French to easily conquer the country, and the Mexicans’ unexpected victory served as a huge morale boost for the beleaguered defenders.  That said, the success was only temporary; the French regrouped, and with the arrival of additional troops were able to win the Second Battle of Puebla in 1863.  The French moved on to capture Mexico City, where they installed Emperor Maximillian as a pro-French puppet.  This “Mexican Empire” survived until 1867, when Mexican forces under Benito Juárez defeated the last remnants of the French army and had Maximillian executed.

With this background, it’s easy to see why Cinco de Mayo remains more of a mid-level holiday in Mexico today—it was a plucky, momentary victory on the eve of a large-scale defeat.  In truth, within Mexico the holiday is mostly celebrated in and around Puebla itself.

That said, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a new life north of the border, where it remains a major holiday among Mexican-Americans.  Here, it is a festive expression of cultural pride and a time for the honoring of cultural symbols.  In this way, it shares strong similarities to St. Patrick’s Day, which is a much larger event in the US than it is in Ireland.

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Mexico is an intensely musical place; it is the home of a wonderful range of musical styles and forms, in both popular and “formal” styles.  In the spirit of today’s holiday, allow me to share some recommendations of works in a more classical vein. Continue reading

Arts Marketing Fail, FWSO Edition

Woo-boy.  I’ve chronicled various marketing disasters from the world of classical music before… but I don’t know that I’ve run across something like this.  In other cases, the mishaps were often the result of good intentions gone wrong (been there), ideas that seemed good at the time (been there), working too fast (been there), or some similar reason.  In short, they were unintentional.

This one by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) was not. Continue reading

The Wrong Way to Attract Audiences

For those of us involved in the arts, the past few months have been a time of… well, high drama.  President Trump jolted the country by unveiling a budget that called for the elimination of funding for the NEA (along with the NEH and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).  In response, there has been a flurry of articles, studies, and discussions that have explored how and why the arts are important.  There is a new interest in detailing the value of the arts, and what benefits they convey upon individuals and society as a whole.  A key part of this emerging discussion has been how to show relevance, as well as how the arts can improve their relevance. Several of these articles have been brilliant.

But not all of them.

Yesterday, George Patrick “GP” McLeer, Jr., Executive Director of the South Carolina Arts Alliance, tossed his hat into the ring with a blog helpfully titled Ten Things in the Arts that Should Die.  This article focused on 10 things arts organizations could do to attract people and make themselves more responsive to their community.

And my first thought was, “here we go again.”  Yet another well-meaning arts aficionado has posted a click-baity list about how to save the arts.  And indeed, that seems to be the case.  But as I read through the list I became convinced it wasn’t simply light-hearted, but a recipe for disaster.

I don’t doubt GP’s sincerity or commitment to helping the arts, but as the Board President of an arts organization, an arts administrator with years of experience under my belt, and as an active performer, let me share a few thoughts about this list’s problems. Continue reading

Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” – Rising from the Ashes

Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is frequently regarded as his masterpiece—a towering oratorio noted for its complex score and profound religious message.  In the autograph score, Elgar wrote the work represented “the best of me,” and countless listeners have agreed with him.

It is, quite simply, one of the greatest spiritual dramas ever written.

Gerontius is based on Cardinal Henry John Newman’s epic poem of the same name, which traces the journey of the soul from death to its arrival before the Throne of God in a vivid dramatization of Catholic theology.  Along the way it explores some of the greatest questions of the human experience: what is our purpose? What is a good life? And what is the nature of God?  But the score is so vividly drawn, and filled with such fascinating incidents and memorable characterizations that it never feels like a religious lesson or a string of platitudes.

Unfortunately, the work is still something of a concert rarity in the US—quite a contrast to the situation in Britain, where it generally considered a national treasure, and performed almost with the same regularly as Handel’s Messiah is here.  For listeners coming to a performance on this side of the pond, this represent a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, they will be able to experience this lush, late-Romantic score completely fresh and without preconceptions.  The danger is that because it is such a dense, many-layered score that some of its complexities will be lost.

I have the pleasure of performing Gerontius this spring with the Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale and a crack team of soloists under the direction of Edo De Waart, and it has been a thrill getting to know this sublime score.  Allow me to share some insights to help new listeners understand it better. Continue reading

Rest in Peace, Maestro Skrowaczewski

I think that most people would agree that the Minnesota Orchestra is in the midst of a golden age.  Under the artistic leadership of Music Director Osmo Vänskä, and the administrative leadership of President and CEO Kevin Smith, the ensemble has leapt from one success to another.  Rave reviews, award-winning recordings, enthusiastic audiences, historic cultural exchanges… the Orchestra is enjoying them all right now.

I don’t wish to take anything away from its current, well-earned successes. But in many ways, the foundations of today’s successes were laid by another man: former Music Director, and long-time Conductor Laureate Stanisław Skrowaczewski.

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Stan passed away yesterday at age 93 after a series of strokes… but his immense legacy will live on across the world through his dozens of recordings, his riveting biography Seeking the Infinite, and the memories of those he touched.

Over the length of his astonishing career, Stan worked with countless ensembles, in countless places.  Each has a rightful “claim” on him, but allow me to share a few thoughts about his impact here in Minnesota. Continue reading