Monday, January 16, 2017


"We will replace it with something great!" – Donald Trump

Trumpcare Platinum

Recommended for those with a solid background in musical theater/dance. Applicant must perform "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" from La La Land, in its entirety and in the original key. Additionally, proficiency must be demonstrated in one non-singing skill, as long as it's not boring. Schedule your livestream audition at the fantastic new Trumpcare website, which will be fully functional on day ONE, thank you very much. Performances to be adjudicated by a wonderfully diverse panel of conscripts from the performing arts division of the new Trump Fired/Undocumented Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida (TFUC).
Thumbs up: 100% coverage (except in case of illness or injury)
Thumbs down: see Trumpcare

For "serious" artists in the fields of literature, classical music, jazz, the visual arts and other uninteresting pastimes. Also for those with pre-existing medical conditions such as heartbeat, respiration or skin. Live audition not required-we couldn't care less and no one else does either, trust me. Just send a hard copy portfolio of your "work" to Secretary Rick Perry, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, DC 20585, where it will be incinerated to provide low-cost high-CO
2 energy for the new White House Watersports Pavilion. Coverage as in Platinum, except for a lifetime maximum of $15,000 or 894,770 rubles, whichever comes first.

For the completely ungifted, or those who failed their Golden audition.
Well then, what CAN you do? Have you tried slam poetry, celebrity cook-offs, fashion design? All I can suggest is you get off your lazy Medicaid keister and make something interesting of yourself before asking for a handout from the United States Treasury. Visit Trumpweb
(really, really secure) for a link to the Trumpcare-approved "Personal Responsibility" program- or "I've Got Some Talent" as we like to call it! Enrollees will receive free Trumpcare Gold coverage contingent on successful completion of a four-year, 5,000-hour course designed by the acclaimed Kushner Institute (formerly the National Endowment for the Arts). Annual tuition based on race, religion, sexual orientation and degrees of separation from Mitch McConnell.
Note: Financial aid available but really, really frowned upon.


Monday, June 15, 2015

Limited Partnership airs on PBS in June

Don't miss this heart-rending chronicle of a gay couple's 40-year love story and struggle against anti-gay marriage and immigration laws:
Limited Partnership | Independent Lens | PBS

Absolutely brilliant, bittersweet and inspiring. Bravo.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Pickled hearing at the Chelsea Music Festival

Lucky patrons of the 2015 Chelsea Music Festival featuring the music of Finland and Hungary, are not going hungry or thirsty. With Hear/Taste/See as the festival rallying cry, almost all of the concerts in this 10-day series are advertised to include (in bold italic) "reception and open bar" along with a smattering of "curated" (?) food presentations by celebrity-ish chefs. Apparently worried about those pesky two remaining senses, there was last evening the unveiling of the "2015 Chelsea Music Festival Scent by perfumer Christophe Laudamiel." No sign as yet of a touch-themed event, but perhaps things might heat up if they move the Finnish Fiddle-Off to a sauna with goulash-tasting afterwards. But I'm ONLY going if it's curated.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Suffer the little children

Photo: David Guttenfelder for the New York Times
A performance at the Kyongsang Kindergarten in Pyongyang

A few months ago I was hired as an accompanist for an international competition for young pianists, the youngest division ranging in age from about 9-13 years old. Even at this tender age, the contestants were required to present from memory the equivalent of a full-length solo recital program and a complete concerto from a list of "easier" but nonetheless typically virtuosic showpieces. Those that were selected to go on to semi-final/final rounds faced multiple days of public performance, all before an audience of expectant teachers, wigged-out parents and distinguished judges. The final three contestants completed the grueling week with a public performance of their concerto with orchestra. And what were YOU doing when you were 11?

Like most pianists, this wasn't my first go-round at youth competitions, having endured them many times both as anxious contestant and later as accompanist or adjudicator. I understand their value for young artists, even though I don't often agree with their modi operandi. What has changed quite dramatically over the decades, though, is the level of repertoire being inflicted upon these unquestionably ultra-talented children. When once a Bach invention, a Haydn sonata, a Mendelssohn or Schumann character piece and a Kabalevsky sonatina were considered suitable student offerings, we are now hearing works once reserved for the mature virtuoso- Liszt's Don Juan fantasy, Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, Prokofiev's fiendish Toccata, and on and on. Competition guidelines often don't attempt to place limits on repertoire choices anymore, unfortunately encouraging this kind of audience-pandering selection. It is unthinkable to me what these poor children must endure from teacher and parent in order to prepare such daunting and age-inappropriate material; there is no other word for it than abuse.

Behind the scenes, one overhears judges and competition staff tsking and clucking over this regretful emphasis on pure technical display, but they nonetheless more often than not promulgate this behavior by dismissing those with less developed (i.e. normal) technique, overlooking inspired and honest musicality amidst all the noise. What message are they sending? That only those with preternatural technical gifts and a penchant for forced labor will be strong enough to survive in today's cutthroat world of solo pianism.

Is this true? Perhaps, sadly. Is it right? All I know is you can't skip directly from Haydn to Rachmaninoff without missing some crucial development along the way. The simple clarity of a Clementi sonatina, the vivid characterizations in Schumann's Album for the Young, the tonal palette of a Chopin nocturne or Debussy prelude; all of these and a thousand more musical experiences must meld together over time to form an accomplished and yes, even virtuoso pianist.

Teachers, can we let kids be kids? Even Mozart had a day off now and then.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Art rules

Vis-à-vis yesterday's post about the Times music review that began "classical music has too many rules for its own good"- I assume the critic was referring to the often fusty style of fine art music presentation, with performers on stage in formalwear and ball gowns circa 1897 Vienna, regardless of the tone of the event or its repertoire; hushed audiences sweating it out until the end of pieces, never but never clapping between movements; the obligatory "edgy" work quickly followed by a warm, squishy Romantic masterpiece to appease the donor base. And the list goes on.

But of course there are just the same kinds of silly rules at work today within other music genres. Popular music maintains a rigid devotion to juvenile emotional expressions and simplistic harmony (tonic/dominant + love + backbeat). The commercial success of pop artists is almost without exception reliant on slavish observance of current musical fashions. Much of of jazz performance consists of reinterpreting past styles and repertoire, called in rule-like fashion "standards."  Opera, dance, chamber music festivals, all have their blind allegiances to customs that in my eyes and ears have far outlived their supposed usefulness. I'm all for jettisoning the silliest of these traditions, and in fact that is already happening across the board in many arts organizations. Sometimes the results can be gimmicky and market-driven (Beer and Beethoven!) but at least they seem to be trying. 

To me, the best artists take rules and stand them on their head. I am currently captivated by Paul Hindemith's 1942 piano masterpiece "Ludus tonalis" - good thing, too, since I am recording it this fall for Bridge Records- and I see it as a perfect example of this ethos. Nothing could be more traditional in Western classical music than the fugue, and here Hindemith writes 12 of them with inspired and effortless virtuosity. Instead of maintaining this rather heady level throughout the work, he alternates each fugue with an interlude of complete, almost unrelated fancy, as if to say "Stop taking yourself so seriously! Music is just music!" In a bigger gesture of rule-breaking, Hindemith constructs the whole work to support the basic tenets of his own system of composition- a system that sometimes sounds like conventional Western harmony, but then again really doesn't. It just speaks, pure and simple. Without rules this work wouldn't exist, and yet it is a completely individual and uncompromising statement. That's what art is about, and I suspect the foolish mores rampant in current music presentation will be gone long before this sort of genius is extinguished.

The challenge remains to find innovative ways to present works like "Ludus" to an increasingly distracted and impatient public. What rules can we sweep away, what new traditions can we create? To be continued...

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What's new?

I choked a bit on my Nespresso this morning over the Times review of the Locrian Chamber Players at Riverside Church. Claiming that "classical music has too many rules for its own good" the critic praises the ensemble for their "laudable" practice of not distributing program notes until after their concerts, and for their mission of performing music written only within the last ten years. I guess these are not considered rules, just fun ideas.

Laudable practices exactly how? Let's face it, program notes always seem tedious, regardless of when they are made available to the hapless audience, like a nagging homework assignment. If this ensemble is truly committed to an analysis-free experience, why not let people get away completely clean, savoring their own reactions, insights, pleasure/displeasure? Surely anyone moved to enrich their understanding could rush home to read all about motivic transformation on Wikipedia. In this case, with all of the music being Beaujolais Nouveau, it's a really good bet that most of the composers live within a ten-block radius of the venue. Heck, just invite them all to dinner instead! As for the ten-year gimmick, I'm still trying to figure out how this relates to an ensemble named after an ancient Greek mode.

OK, this eruption may not surprise, coming from someone committed as I am to performing works from the wildly untrendy mid-20th C. It's still my conviction that a vast and compelling repertoire continues to be sidelined by musty Brahms symphonies and flavor-of-the month premieres. May I propose a more truly laudable rule? Cast the net wide, but throw back the baby fish.

And enough with the program notes.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Putin vs. Met

   This whole horrifying, history-repeating-itself Putin debacle continues to roil and rankle, and well it should. Today's lead article in the NY Times Art's section pushes the debate along with its coverage of reaction to composer Andrew Rudin's recent brave and appropriate online petition calling on the sacrosanct Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its upcoming Russian-themed opening night gala to the support of LGBT rights. At issue are the evening's megastars: diva soprano Anna Netrebko, and conductor Valery Gergiev, artistic director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater. Both were outspoken supporters during the rabidly anti-gay Mr. Putin's rise to power, with Gergiev even being crowned "Hero of Labor" by Putin this spring. To top it off, the evening features (gay, gay, gay, gay) Tchaikovky's opera "Eugene Onegin." The ironies stupefy, even by Manhattan standards.

   "I'm not asking them to be against anybody. I'm asking them to be for somebody" said Mr. Rudin, which to me is a brilliant, succinct call to artistic arms. This last month I've already been aghast at the varied and creative apologia rhetoric, ranging from the ignorantly offensive to the downright self-serving, of star athletes and Olympic officials the world over as they selfishly guard their chance to grab glory, dollars and endorsement contracts in Sochi-at the trifling expense of basic human rights. But now that this thing has landed right in my lap as an artist, I find the time to speak out is now. At very least, SIGN THIS PETITION! I did it this morning, and now I'm writing this.

   Like elite athletes, performing artists are certainly not immune to opportunistic, head-in-the-sand thinking. After showing no qualms at all about stumping for Putin, Netrebko and Gergiev have gone mum. Ms. Netrebko on Facebook: "As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues-regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone." Oh, and by the way some of her best friends are gay!...including about 99.9999% of her fans, patrons and CD buyers. It's just a little too much trouble to speak up for them, though her superstar status in the classical music world guarantees her enormous power on the world stage. Not to mention that the very core of true artistic expression, and the subject of nearly every song and opera she has ever warbled, speaks to our shared human experience of man's cruelty to man, injustice, greed, loss and betrayal. But at least she has made a statement, as pale as it is. Mr. Gergiev, who is slated to be a grand marshal at Sochi, has yet to make comment. But perhaps the most enraging is the marshmallow corporate-speak response from the office of Met manager Peter Gelb, saying "we stand behind all of our artists, regardless of whether or not they wish to publicly express their personal political opinions." They should say "hide behind." Others have stepped forward: Bartlett Sher, recent star director at the Met, and violinist Gidon Kremer have made admittedly cautious but honest statements to the press condemning Putin, seemingly urging the Met to take an action, any action. 

    There is a prevailing belief that it is inappropriate for artists to speak out in the world of politics. We would rather our great singers, conductors and instrumentalists don their costumes and trot onstage to re-enact the great operas of Bellini, Barber, Corigliano, Donizetti, Handel, Menotti, Ravel, Poulenc, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky and a thousand other LGBT artists before and since, while we safely watch from the insulation of our $475 box seats as a world leader brazenly, methodically strips away the rights of already vulnerable citizens. The Met claims its "mission is artistic" and is therefore excused from taking a stand. But what is our role as artists, if not to raise our voices, hands, pens and brushes against tyrants such as Putin who, given the chance, would extinguish all those who differ from his Russian ideal? It seems that world governments and their athletes have already found their convenient justifications for not boycotting the winter games in Sochi. Maybe it is not too late to encourage a mere 3,800 opening night gala attendees to forgo their tuxedos and fur coats and throw their offensively overpriced tickets into the Lincoln Center fountain on September 23rd? Or perhaps, the Met might wake up and begin the process of setting asides decades of veiled homophobia at last. If they are afraid of losing artists such as Netrebko and Gergiev along the way, I venture to say there will be a hundred others of equal talent and stronger principle lined up to take their place. Warning! A few of them might be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered.