RIP Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher

What a loss.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds—two legendary performers—have been taken from us this week, far too soon.  As a way to work through the shock and grief, many of my friends have been sharing favorite stories of them.  In that vein, allow me to share a story of my own… a story that involves Debbie Reynolds flirting with me in front of my wife Jill, when we were both working at Orchestra Hall here in Minneapolis.

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Some years back, Debbie and Carrie were supposed to appear together at Orchestra Hall as part of the “Unique Lives” series. This was a group of lecture/interview/Q&A sessions with women who had lived particularly noteworthy lives. I was the Duty Manager/House Manager that evening—essentially in charge.

On the night of the presentation, severe weather was hitting the east coast, and Carrie’s flight was cancelled. We tried a variety of ways to have her call in and do the session remotely… but ultimately nothing was really working, and we regretfully cancelled Carrie’s portion of the evening.

Debbie, however, was there and absolutely radiant. She was just quietly hanging out back stage when her agent waved me and some other staff folks over to introduce us, telling her “This gentleman is in charge tonight.” Debbie—ever the performer—immediately brightened. She smiled a coy smile, put a finger on her chin and said “Oh, goodness. Look at this handsome young thing they brought to take care of me….” I believe I turned fire-engine red as I tried to stammer through some incoherent pleasantries, and tried to walk through the schedule. She patted my arm and said, “Oh, don’t worry, this will be fun!” and walked away to go to the podium for a mic check….

…and in doing so I saw Jill, who had taken in the whole encounter with an arched eyebrow.

I may have smiled weakly and started to say something. Jill, however, was one step ahead of me. She put on her best “1940s-broad” accent, and quipped in faux outrage, “Debbie Reynolds, that skank? You tell her to back down! Getcher own goddamn man, Debbie Reynolds!”

My jaw hit the ground, before Jill and I both collapsed into laughter. Those lines have been part of our marriage ever since.

In all seriousness, working with Debbie was a delight. She was remarkable… a consummate professional and a consummate performer. You knew instantly that she knew more about show business than most of us could imagine, but she didn’t for one moment stand on ceremony or have any pretension.  On the contrary, she was deeply humble, warm and gracious. Most of all she was generous with her time and attention.

Put plainly, she was a true and undeniable star, but never acted like it.

I’m so sorry to lose Debbie and Carrie both—they lit up the world with their gifts, and we’re all a bit poorer without them. Rest in peace.



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On the “Hamilton Incident”

Last week, we had a cultural moment—the “Hamilton Incident.”  Most of the shouting has died down, but before we get too far away I wanted to share a few thoughts on this, as it hits on several important issues that we in the arts grapple with all the time.  And while this is hardly the most pressing national concern at the moment, the whole dust up hits on larger issues that are of critical importance right now, and resonate with me as an artist and as a citizen of the United States of America. Continue reading

A Thanksgiving Story

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to have a greater and greater appreciation for that most American of holidays… Thanksgiving.  It is remarkable, isn’t it? The coming together of friends and family, and the sharing of food and good stories.  The joyous sense of hospitality.

And most of all, the ability to slow down for a moment and to be grateful for what you have.

My Thanksgiving tradition while growing up was to have a mid-day Thanksgiving feast at the house of Pastor Jim, the man who had baptized me when I came into the world.  As the years passed he had rotated to other congregations, but we always gathered at his family’s home.  Although they were an older couple, he and his wife had adopted two African-American children who were close in age to my brother and I, and growing up there were always shenanigans to get into, either indoors and out (the year we kids decided to act out a Kung Fu movie was particularly memorable).  Plus, there was always an eclectic bunch at the Thanksgiving gatherings.  Some were old friends and families that had accumulated over the years, but Pastor Jim’s family always insisted that any Thanksgiving “orphans” with nowhere else to go were not just welcome… they were expected.  Friends of friends, coworkers, travelers… it didn’t matter.  When these extra guests arrived at the door, it was thrown open with hugs around and can-I-get-you-anything? hospitality.  It always struck me as a thoroughly American experience: Thanksgivings at their house were always the E Pluribus Unum variety.

One has always stood out for me.  Continue reading

Great Arts Choices for “Give to the Max Day”

For those of us here in Minnesota, you might have noticed that it is “Give to the Max Day”… that wonderful day where the entire state goes online and donates to their favorite charities.

And brings down the Internet as they do.

Minnesotans are rightly proud of this tradition, as our Give to the Max Day tends to be one of the largest such days in the nation.  Last year, for example, this statewide philanthropy event spurred more than 60,000 people to give $18.1 million to several thousand organizations.  That’s huge!

I’ve been involved with a whole host of nonprofits over the years, both professionally and personally.  There are so many choices about where to give, but I wanted to share a top recommendations for local arts/cultural organizations and explain why I think they stand out.

Stop by GiveMN’s website to donate… or knowing that the site tends to overload and go down, I’ve also linked the organizations’ respective websites directly.  Thank you for your support!

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The Minnesota Chorale.  This one is probably no surprise—I’m the President of the Board.  But I’m not recommending it out of some obligation, but rather a sense of pride and wonder at the amazing work they do in the community.  It is for these reasons I am the President of the Board.  The Chorale is dedicated to sharing vocal music, performed at the highest level, to the widest public.  It is perhaps most famous for its large-scale performances with the area’s two top orchestras, the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.  But it does so much more.  It is committed to working with community partners, both artistic or non-artistic, to explore what music means for the community.  One of my favorite experiences was a project done a few years back with the Courage Center… an organization dedicated to helping differently-abled people live their lives to their fullest potential.  We were working specifically with non-traditional dancers, who performed in wheelchairs, used walkers, or were completely deaf.  It was amazing seeing music transform these people, and seeing the audience be transformed by their performances, too.  Toward the end, one dancer with cerebral palsy said to me he had been called many things in his life, but had never been called beautiful, nor an artist. Hats off also to our elder chorus and children’s choir, which allow singers to sing across their entire lifetime.


The Minnesota OrchestraMy ties to this group go way back—I started working for them in 1992 and worked for them in some capacity right up through the 16-month lockout.  The lockout was hard, but the organization is transformed.  It is performing music at the highest level, but more than that it is completely reshaped its relationship to the community.  Last year, it leaped from strength to strength, and I am inspired and excited about where its going.  You can help keep that momentum going, and make sure it continues to perform the music that inspires our community.


Twin Cities PBS – TPTI’ve long loved the work that our local PBS station does… they not only show PBS’s extraordinary programming, but create award-winning programming of their own.   Minnesota Original and Lowertown Line, for example, are Emmy-winning series that showcase the best of local talent, and give them a larger platform to reach larger audiences.  TPT has also reconfigured its studio to include the new Street Space performing venue, making it a top venue in Lowertown, St. Paul.


Girl Friday Productions.  This small company is a marvel.  In terms of materials, it concentrates on American playwrights, and on plays that feature largish casts.  They perform every other year, and their productions are eagerly awaited by people in the know.  Their production a few years of Our Town a few years ago was a revelation—taking a familiar chestnut and giving it new levels of meaning.  Street Scene, a story about immigration and a multi-ethnic neighborhood written last century, was also a revelation, and felt like it could have been written yesterday.  I reviewed their last production, The Matchmaker, and it was a knocked-out-of-the-park home run.  If you care about American theater—or insightful, revelatory productions—you need to get on their mailing list.


Theater Latté Da. This is another company with a reputation for turning out brilliant productions one after the other.  It is committed to rigorous experimentation with music and story in ways that expand the idea of what musical drama can be, but is constantly engaging.  Their production of Sweeney Todd became one of the season’s hottest tickets.  Gypsy was a coup.  Into the Woods, set in a German beer garden, was a sensation.  Earlier this fall they scored another triumph with Ragtime, that again could not have been more timely, and their upcoming production of All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a Twin Cities staple.  It uses music to tell a powerful story of the famous “Christmas Truce” that spontaneously broke out during World War I, and always feels timely.  One of the things I greatly value about the company is that it is bold. It pushes boundaries in terms of storytelling, music, and acting in ways that seem fresh and… well, vital.


One Voice Mixed Chorus.  This is a scrappy ensemble that not only does great work in the community, but also has a long record of hitting above its weight class.  It is Minnesota’s LGBT and allies choruses, and one of the largest and most significant in the country.  It has tackled a wide variety of issues over the years with a powerful mix of wit, wisdom, humor, and strength. One concert in particular has stayed with me—a concert dedicated to “unsilencing” LGBT and Jewish music of the Holocaust, which featured Janet Horvath of the Minnesota Orchestra on cello.  Later this spring, they will present a gender-bending production of The Pirates of Penzance.  Kudos also for their extraordinary work in local schools to fight bullying.

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This are my top arts choices, but I’d love to hear other suggestions… and why you love them.  Drop a line in the comments below!



“The Promise of Living:” Music for Election Day

Greetings, and Happy Election Day to my readers!  Its been a tumultuous political season, but today we bring it to an end by doing our most important civic duty—choosing the men and women who will lead this great country.  I know many just want the craziness to end, but for me this really is a joyful time… it is a national holiday where we get to chose our country’s future.


I wanted to leave you with short piece of music that sums up this day and this time of year perfectly:  “The Promise of Living” from Aaron Copland’s opera, The Tender Land.  The setting is the Midwest during the Depression.  Two migrant farm workers have just arrived at a family farm… just in time for harvest.  In “The Promise of Living,” the workers and the family look ahead to the work of bringing in harvest, sharing in both the work and the bounty.  The song also celebrates family, community, faith in the future, and God’s blessings.

There are many videos of the song out there, but this one in its full chorus version seems particularly appropriate for today.  Enjoy, and vote!


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“The Promise of Living”
Music by Aaron Copland, text by Horace Everett (pseudonym of Erik Johns)

The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving
is born of our loving our friends and our labor.

The promise of growing with faith and with knowing
is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.

For many a year we’ve known these fields and known all the work that makes them yield.
Are you ready to lend a hand? We’ll bring in the harvest, the blessings of harvest.

We plant each row with seeds of grain, and Providence sends us the sun and the rain.
By lending a hand, by lending an arm, bring out from the farm,
bring out the blessings of harvest.

Give thanks there was sunshine, give thanks there was rain.
Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain.
Come join us in thanking the Lord for his blessing.
O let us be joyful. O let us be grateful to the Lord for His blessing.

The promise of ending in right understanding
is peace in our own hearts and peace with our neighbor.

O let us sing our song, and let our song be heard.
Let’s sing our song with our hearts, and find a promise in that song.
The promise of living.
The promise of growing.
The promise of ending is labor and sharing our loving.



A Classical Autumn Playlist

Fall is here!

With dusk coming on earlier and earlier, there’s a new crispness to the air. It is a time when iced tea gives way to apple cider, and school buses start to nudge out ice cream trucks on neighborhood streets.

In honor of the new season, let me provide a listening guide to some of my favorite autumn-themed works of classical music, listed alphabetically by composer. Please feel free to share your own favorites in the comments. Enjoy! Continue reading

In Defense of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Over the last few weeks, our National Anthem has been at the center of controversy—a fact that is painfully obvious to anyone watching/reading/listening to the news.

It began with headlines when San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner as it was played before a game against the Green Bay Packers.  He later offered the following explanation for his refusal: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

In the days the followed, others came forward and posited that the song itself was inherently racist, with Jon Schwartz writing the article, “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery” and Shaun King explaining “Why I’ll never stand again for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”  A key element of their argument is that the third verse (rarely sung… or for that matter, much remembered today) makes reference to “hirelings and slaves.”  They have gone on to argue that The Star-Spangled Banner was only adopted as our National Anthem relatively recently, so why not chuck it altogether?

I hesitate to say much about Kaepernick’s original protest, other than to note that the issues he raises are real ones, and I support his right to protest.

I do take issue with the resulting discussions, however. I don’t agree that The Star-Spangled Banner is inherently racist, or that the lyrics are fundamentally about slavery.

Francis Scott Key's poem,"Defence of Fort M'Henry," celebrated an implausible American victory during the War of 1812.

Francis Scott Key’s poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” celebrated an implausible American victory during the War of 1812.


Most know me now as an arts writer or a music commentator, but previous to this I was a historian, and had the pleasure of teaching history at the University of Kansas for many years.  In my time, I’ve seen a great deal of revisionist history; sometimes fresh thinking or a different perspective can help shed new light on a historical topic, but other times it can go too far off the deep end and lose credibility.

I think the current National Anthem controversy is an example of the later. Let me explain. Continue reading