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Oh! Sorry! I didn’t mean for you to run so fast. I may have been a bit overly dramatic there; I hope you didn’t call any emergency services.

Anyway, back when I had that poll, it seemed the consensus was that Composer Cagematch!es should continue, in a soon-ish sort of time frame. That’s a-okay by me – I find them super-fun – but I need your help. Who should fight next? Here are some suggestions:

  • Schubert
  • Borodin
  • Webern
  • Delibes
  • Sir Arthur Sullivan
  • Piazzolla
  • Respighi
  • Vivaldi

But who should they fight? Who else should participate? Should we even consider folding in composers who have already fought? Help me out!

Oh, also! If you’re of an artistic mind, would you be interested in drawing a CC! graphic? I need something for the top of these pages but I can’t seem to get the boxing gloves right. It’s an affliction.

What’s the good word on teaching?

You may recall last year my post about what makes for a good music teacher, and then my much longer post about what makes a bad music teacher. Of course the latter was longer; there’s always more to complain about than praise, isn’t there? Well, let’s try to right the universe as best we can with a little positivity. Who out there is a GOOD music teacher, and why?

Sure, to an extent this is sort of a call for recommendations, and if someone out there is looking for a music/instrument instructor and can find someone here, awesome. What fascinates me personally, however, is the method behind it. I liked my cello teacher, Ben Myers, because he was supremely talented while still being super laid-back about the whole process. On the other hand, I also liked my high school violin teacher, Mrs. Lawrence, whom I would not describe as laid-back but who was so encouraging that my friend Megan and I once played a duet badly on purpose to see if she’d still begin her critique with “that was good!” (She did. We laughed and then explained. She was relieved.)

So: if there is no single characteristic that defines a good music teacher, what should you look for? And don’t just say “it depends on who you are” because that’s a cop out. And music teachers, how do you select and develop your method? On a related note, those of you with kids or students for whom you found teachers, how did you go about selecting the proper instructor?

Oh, two unrelated things to mention: don’t forget about the free outdoor concert at Strathmore tonight at 7 pm! And also, I received an email informing me that voting is now open for the Paris Opera Awards. If you have an opinion on opera and performers, make it heard here.

When shall we thirty-two meet again?

In thunder, lightning, or in the wrestling arena?

I think we can all agree that the Composer Cagematch! was a pretty good time. The question is, was it a good enough time to have again? There are so many composers out there worthy of a shot in the ring (Schubert, I’m looking at you), but I’d hate to flood the market and subsequently turn the fans against the franchise.

But I’m a blogger of the people, not a king (dare I suggest we’re an autonomous collective?), so I’m turning it over to you:

If you voted yes – who would you like to step into the ring next? Any suggestions for tweaking the system? If you voted no – I don’t know… how’s your summer so far?

Signature move

There are no concerts this week (aside from some free events at Strathmore – check it out right now!), so instead I thought I’d hit you with some pictures, and then smack you in the face with a sock filled with queries.

I took these photos of NADJA SALERNO-SONNENBERG during intermission at her recent BSO concert. She doesn’t hold particularly still.

And here’s the phone case she signed for me! She was a bit taken aback by my request, but my reasoning is that if I had her sign my program, at best I’d have it lying around and at worst I’d lose it. My phone case, however, I see all the time, and I can look at it and smile. Logic!

Now please get out some pens and ruled paper, because I have some discussion questions for you:

  1. There never were very many people in line to see NADJA. I don’t think it was widely advertised – I only knew to look myself because I’m friends with the front of house guy – so: when attending a concert with a big name artist, do you assume there will be a signing, and do you pursue it?
  2. Have you met many big musical deals at signings? Who’s the biggest?
  3. If you could have your favorite artist sign anything you wanted, what would it be?
  4. NADJA’s handler looks pretty sour, don’t you think?

For super bonus points: if you’re a big enough deal to have signed things for others, what’s your view of the experience? (You can answer this hypothetically if you like.)

The machines will never replace us (not on my watch)

In the concert hall, how do you tell the seasoned sophisticates from the plebes? Easy! It’s all about knowing when to clap. Everyone knows that you hold your applause to the very end of the piece; that’s just how it’s done.

Last week I attended the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concert featuring NADJA-SALERNO SONNENBERG, in which she played the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. She received a standing ovation.

After the first movement.

And no one minded, because she bloody well brought the house down, with her swaying and her stomping and her passionate frenzy of notes, but also with her smiles and winks and a playful spirit, just her and her buddy Piotr knocking out a few bars for the joy of it. She got a second, full-audience standing ovation after the third and final movement, because she’s NADJA SALERNO-SONNENBERG and don’t you forget it.

But she’s by no means the only big-name concert violinist out there. I would even wager she’s not among THE most famous. A big deal, certainly, but somewhat less educated people might think first of, say, Pinchas Zuckerman, or for your more modern sensibilities, Hilary Hahn.

Hmmm. That’s odd. I’ve been to live performances by both, and on neither occasion were there multiple, spontaneous standing ovations.(This is the part of the post where I start to duck and move. I’m looking at you, CMcGo, aka Mr. Hahn.)

I talked about this with my mother the other day, and she pointed out that both Hahn and Zuckerman are considered classicists, concerned with perfection and purity of form and note. To which I say: BOOOOOOORING. If you want perfection, program it into a computer. Who decided classical music has to be clean enough for surgery? And who decided that the only acceptable facial expressions are those of intensity or in some cases anger? Why can’t a soloist hunker down into the music and really ENJOY it? And, like, y’know, grin and stuff?

The BSO followed NADJA with a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and again I say: it was too clean. This is music for pagan ritual; is it wrong to expect some rawness? I want a Rite that bleeds at the edges, but it seemed a study of caution as the watchword. No thank you. Bring back NADJA. Bring back classical music with some individual personality.

So! I now invite your rebuttal. Do you think my acknowledged hero-worship of NADJA colors my opinion of her performance? Do you think Hilary Hahn is a goddess (CMcGo) and intend to murder me for my sins against her? Do you think perfection should be the goal after all? And if you do, answer me this: then why SHOULDN’T we just program our music into a computer and call it a day?

The rule of three (out of four) (usually)

Okay, longtime readers. I’m going to tell you something, and I don’t want you to panic.

Last Thursday, I gave a standing ovation.

Easy! Easy! Don’t freak! I know I have famously taken a stand (see what I did there?) against the ovation, but I feel it was deserved. You see, the National Symphony Orchestra performed Beethoven’s seventh symphony – the best Beethoven symphony, and therefore the best symphony, period. Last time I heard it live, I got burned, but this time –

This time it was awesome. Especially the second movement. It was perfect. My concert-going companion thought it should’ve been a slower still, and I see his point, but having thought it through I return to my original conclusion: perfect. Because the second movement must have some bite to it. Not a lot – just a little – but enough teeth to fuel the mini-rebellion that comes in the middle of the movement. For me, the music is about resigned grief – but not resigned without a fight! You know?

So. Perfect. And I stood.

On a quasi-related note, it occurred to me that of the four movements of the seventh, the third is my least favorite (which is akin to saying that of all the Narnia books, The Silver Chair is my least favorite; I’ve still read it like eighteen times). And that thought led to another: of the four movements of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet, the third is – wait for it – my least favorite. The Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2? Least favorite: third movement.

In fact, no third movement springs to mind for which I harbor a particular fondness. What gives? Do you agree with my assessment? Or can you correct me with some fantastic third movement examples?

See the music, hear the dance

“See the music, hear the dance,” says Balanchine. This is important.

I took a choreography course as an elective in grad school. It was not a wholly successful venture, as we performed our own works and I am not always entirely at home with being Under Scrutiny, but I do think I improved my skills.

We always talked through our pieces, about what was working and what wasn’t, and the professor gave some insight into her own struggles. One such issue was her sometimes frustration with finding a piece of music she desperately wanted to choreograph but being unable to see her way to any steps. A student had set her final dance to such a score – a piano piece by Debussy – and the professor expressed her admiration at the student’s ability to pick up on layers on the music to fuel her steps. “Those are layers I never would have noticed as right to highlight.”

The best dances are those that do not exist outside their music. The dull ones – you know the ones I mean, I’m sure – have choreography that may impress with tricks and spins but have little or no relation to the music being played in the background. It’s just a beat, or a collection of lyrics meant to do all the work of explaining the purpose of the dance so that the dancer and choreographer don’t have to bother with it (there are rare exceptions to this).

On the flip side, to go back to Balanchine, he didn’t want to choreograph to Beethoven because he felt Beethoven’s music needed no further augmentation. Similarly, there are dances that are created without music at all.

If they want to play, music and dance must do more than play nice with each other. They must complement each other, and find the new layers.


For more on this, you might be interested in my interview with Shannon Schwait of CityDance.

Here is a list of my demands

I don’t work in the hospitality department at the music center, but I’m just a few cubicles over from the people who do, plus we share a refrigerator.

Sometimes I open said refrigerator and see impressive-looking foodstuffs labeled with an emphatic “DO NOT EAT.” Right now there is a fruit pie bearing these very words. This means that the food is intended for a visiting performer.

I hear some interesting stories about the requirements built into artists’ contracts, not just in the area of food but also the layout of the green room and the behavior of the audience. I’m going to be super-lame here and not name any names in the interest of not getting in trouble with The Man, but here are some anecdotes:

  • One pop star stipulated that the green room must be stocked with multiple specific types of alcohol, including some very expensive bottles of wine. She mostly didn’t drink it.
  • A combination actor-singer consented to a meet-and-greet before his concert, but he refused to take photos with individuals — groups only — and made one girl change her homemade fan shirt as it was dubbed a bit too amorous (okay, fair enough).
  • I’ve heard about quite a few performers who absolutely refused to allow anyone to enter the hall once the concert had started; anyone who was late would have to wait until intermission to take their seats.
  • Other requested items: black and white pillows, halogen desk lamps, a “comfortable” space (er, yes, but in what regard? No further details provided)

I may sound a little snarky, but it’s mostly just salt — no one ever asks me what kind of baked good I want when I arrive in a new town; of course, the only thing standing between me and acres of bread pudding is a dearth of talent and charisma. But it also makes me giggle, because somewhere out there is a musician who receives a fruit pie everywhere he goes.

All right, professional musicians and performers of all stripes, I know you’re out there in my sea of readership. Give me the list of your demands! And how about those who cater to the whims of others — what are the most ridiculous requests you’ve fielded?

Where you sit and where you stand

Hey, remember high school orchestra chair auditions? That gladiatorial arena that pitted instrument against instrument in a clawing, biting scramble to score a seat two feet closer to the conductor, the same person you were auditioning for and who you’d known for up to four years, thus stripping away that cool and steadying wall of anonymity that might have otherwise supported you?

Right, so I was in one of those, my sophomore year (a trying year for me, orchestrally, but we can talk about that later), and I was visibly nervous, because that’s what happened to me during auditions: a neon light flashed above my head like a raincloud in a cartoon or a prism above a Sim, and the sign read NERVOUS. And O’Bryan, the conductor, told me to chill out. “Be like Elizabeth,” he said, referring to the first chair violist. “When she makes a mistake, she just says ‘Sorry!’ and keeps right on plugging, totally cool.”

Well, folks, Elizabeth happens to be one of my best friends, so I was able to ask her about this admirable attitude recently. “The only reason I was like that,” she told me, “was because I knew there was no possible way I could be demoted.”

It’s true. Elizabeth was a solid violist backed by a troupe of shaky violists. If she had been removed from her post the whole structure would’ve collapsed in the ensuing violaquake.

I just want to ask you guys about the orchestra (and by implication, band) culture, here. Concertmaster and assistant concertmaster and first chair are all prestigious titles to be sure, and it’s good that musicians have a seat to aspire to. But how much emphasis do you place on them? And beyond that, how much emphasis do you place on every chair after?

In all the school orchestras I ever participated in, your chair was permanent and a de facto indication of where you stood in your section. Anybody ahead of you was better than you, definitively, and if you had to move up you had to challenge your better with a face-off re-audition.

In professional orchestras, however, I understand that aside from the first two chairs, everybody rotates, the idea being that anyone who’s made it in is darn good and a place closer to the sun, as it were, should be afforded to everyone.

Of course, in many schools, music isn’t auditioned, so the logic is flawed. But do you think the rotational system could work in a school orchestra setting? What impact do you think it would have on the ambiance? Or is that cuttthroat culture all in my head?

The Best

Two weeks ago I made a list of composers I considered to be the greatest, in terms of talent, innovation, and output. I tried to make this as objective as possible while still noting that my own preferences and the limits of my knowledge base must unavoidably come into play.

This week? IT’S SUBJECTIVE TIME. Which, indeed, is kind of like Miller Time — alcohol free, yes, but with just as much opportunity to shout your opinions while gesticulating wildly and possibly falling out of your chair.

All of this is just to say that here I would like to present my list not of the greatest composers of all time but the ones I like BEST. Basically the idea here is a collection of the composers that, when the radio deejay says, “next is a piece by ________”, make me say “YAY!!!” Here goes:

  1. BEETHOVEN (duh)
  2. Bach
  3. Khachaturian (and I stand by my decision)
  4. Stravinsky
  5. Schubert
  6. Holst
  7. Prokofiev
  8. Shostakovich
  9. Ravel
  10. Tchaikovsky

There is of course a fair amount of overlap, but I bet some of them surprise you. Before you pull out your extra-sharp pitchfork, rest assured — I’m not suggesting Khachaturian ranks above Stravinsky in… well, in ANY category, really. Stravinsky is definitely the better composer. But Khachaturian makes me super happy! So high up the list he stays. Ya get me?

The nice thing about this list is, it’s even more changeable than a best-of list, undulating and evolving with your changing moods and interests; I expect Handel could sneak on to mine any moment now.

Now about you — who are you feeling right now?