5 Questions for Michael Giacchino


This weekend, the American Youth Symphony will present a screening of Star Trek Into Darkness with the film score played live to picture. David Newman will conduct Michael Giacchino’s exhilarating score and Giacchino will be on hand for a pre-concert/screening Q&A with film music journalist (and frequent KUSC contributor) Jon Burlingame.

Details here.


In advance of this weekend’s performance, I had a chance to catch up with the very busy Oscar-winning composer, Michael Giacchino, for a few questions.

BL: Live movie concerts are all the rage at major orchestras from Europe to the United States and beyond. They are extremely popular with audiences and a boon financially for the orchestras which present them. What do you make of the popularity these types of events?

MG: A large number of people are only exposed to orchestral music through film scores. It only makes sense that this material would find it’s way into the hands of orchestras and that film music should be a regular part of an orchestra’s repertoire. What better way to expose a broader audience to the power of live musicians then playing their favorite film music. I am thrilled that people are getting an opportunity to hear what it is like to be in a room with 80-90 musicians. They may come to hear the Chicago Symphony play Star Trek today, and decide to come back for Bach next week. I also think that as people’s home theaters become more sophisticated, the chance to see a film with a live orchestra in a place like the Royal Albert Hall offers something that simply cannot be replicated in their living room.

BL: As a composer of music for films, I would imagine these kinds of concerts would represent the best possible environment for audiences to experience your work. How does a finely-tweaked, impeccably recorded performance played over a movie theater sound system compare to the immediacy (and potential pitfalls) of live performance?

MG: Nothing compares to the energy of a live performance. Movies in the theater have the dialogue and sound effects mixed slightly differently than we have in the concert hall. We take great care to provide a perfect sound mix so it still feels like the film…however, in the concert hall you can’t help but notice that when Nero’s ship is approaching in Star Trek 09…there’s a lot of brass at work there.

BL: This concert is the first time the AYS will be performing an entire film score live to picture. What sorts of challenges will they encounter…and what advice would you give to the young musicians who have never done this before?

MG: They are going to be in the expert hands of David Newman who is a genius with this type of project. They will have a blast…probably their biggest challenge will be keeping their eyes off the screen and focused on the music. I’m kidding of course but I love watching the musicians follow along with the movie during their rests. I just want them all to relax and have fun. Maestro will keep them in sync.

BL: Much was made of your extremely busy summer with a trio of very high-profile releases [Tomorrowland, Jurassic World, Inside Out]. Does it ever slow down for you? Do you ever have down time? Or do you prefer having a jam-packed schedule? How difficult is it to balance multiple projects at once?

MG: Yes, once the films were released I had some time off in the summer. I went to some of the Star Trek performances, but I was able to take the time and work in my backyard. I do keep a very strict schedule even when I am working. I stop working at 6 and spend time with the kids. It is very important to keep that balance. Working on multiple projects at once is really a matter of scheduling. Luckily, this past year all the directors I worked with knew each other and did their best to keep the schedule so that I wouldn’t go crazy.

BL: Finally, slightly off topic, but KUSC is doing a week-long celebration of the music of Beethoven in a couple of weeks and we’re asking everyone we interview about their early encounters with the music of Beethoven. Has Beethoven’s music ever been an inspiration in your work? Is there a specific piece by Beethoven that is particularly close to your heart?

MG: I love Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata – just magical.  It’s almost like film music before film music existed.  Of course who can forget the 9th Symphony? I often have wondered how many people were introduced to this piece of music by hearing it first in the movie Die Hard?

10 Pieces of Classical Music Everyone Should Know

This is my first contribution to a new series on the KUSC blog. Over the next several weeks, each of the KUSC on-air hosts will unveil a list of 10 essential pieces of classical music that we think everyone should know. These aren’t the “10 Best” pieces, or even our “10 Favorite” pieces–just 10 that we absolutely love and want to share with you. 

1. J.S. Bach: Chaconne, from Partita No. 2 in d minor for Solo Violin – This is breathtakingly epic music and, at times, it’s difficult to believe you’re only hearing a single instrument. The architecture is of the Chaconne is spectacular and a performance of it requires the highest level of virtuosity and artistry. I love both modern and period instrument performances and highly recommend the latter here, with Rachel Podger doing the honors. Also check out: Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor (solo organ) and Suite No. 6 in D major for Solo Cello.

2. Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus – I’ve often said if all the music on earth disappeared except one piece, this would be the piece I would choose to remain. Maybe, just for practical purposes, I should pick something longer–how horrible would life be without music?–but, I’m fairly comfortable standing behind my original opinion. This is Mozart’s final completed work and it represents everything that made him the transcendent genius that he was. It’s the little things. Like the flowing, descending lines in each part as the text mentions the water and blood that flowed from the pierced side of Christ as he hung on the cross. Also check out: Adagio from Gran Partita Serenade and Symphony No. 29.  

3. Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring – Any piece of music that inspires a riot at its first performance deserves to be known, don’t you think? The infamous premiere is certainly a great story, but a less talked about aspect of that spring night in Paris is that the rabble that was roused in the audience wasn’t from unanimous opposition to the music. In fact, the audience was divided about 50-50. Also, they were actually more upset about the choreography than Stravinsky’s score. The Rite has been one of the most important pieces of classical music from day one…and composers today are still wrestling with it. Also check out: Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (sounds like if Stravinsky wrote a Brandenburg Concerto), Silvestre Revueltas: La noche de los Mayas (sounds like a Mexican Rite of Spring),

4. Mahler: Symphony No. 6 – Chances are, if you know anything at all about the Sixth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, you know there are two giant hammer blows in the final movement. But this symphony is so much more than the big bangs. This was Mahler’s most personal symphony. He wrote it in response to three tragedies in his life and it is an emotional journey from darkness to darkerness. Also check out: Symphony No. 9 (for more darkness); Symphony No. 2, Resurrection (in case you need a break from the darkness); Uri Caine’s jazz transcriptions of Mahler.

5. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 – Yes, you know those first four notes. They are, probably, the most famous four notes in all of classical music. But did you know that short-short-short-long rhythm appears an astonishing 382 times in the first movement alone? (By the way, I will passionately argue that the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th contains no melody–only rhythm and harmony.) After the first movement, Beethoven is not done with that s-s-s-l rhythm. He infuses the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movements with that rhythm, which Gustavo Dudamel told me is like a “master key” which unlocks the mysteries of the symphony. You may think you know this symphony (I know I do), but like any great masterpiece, there’s always something new to discover in every hearing. Also check out: Piano Sonata No. 23 in f minor, Appassionata, which Beethoven was writing at the same time as the 5th Symphony and which also ruminates on s-s-s-l in the first movement.

6. Andrew Norman: Play – Norman is the “It Composer” for 21st-century classical music and Play is his most ambitious work to date. In his words, Play is “a symphony in all but name that explores the myriad ways musicians can play with, against, or apart from one another.” It’s partially inspired by video games and when you listen to it, you can certainly feel like you’re watching a really good gamer do his/her thing on the screen. There’s a wonderful exuberance in this music and, for me, the most exciting thing about Play is how, after all these centuries, composers like Andrew Norman are somehow still able to elicit new sounds from the symphony orchestra. Also check out: Gran Turismo (for violin octet, also inspired by video games), The Companion Guide to Rome (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and the wonderfully-titled Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Shatter Splash (a piece written to help introduce young people to classical music).

7. Ravel: String Quartet – You might recognize the playful second movement scherzo as the music for the opening credits of The Royal Tenenbaums. That’s just one of the many wonderful moments in this quartet. The opening movement is a textbook definition of “impressionism.” The slow movement makes time itself seem to stop. The finale is the exact opposite: more energizing than a triple-shot of espresso. Also check out: Gaspard de la nuit, Piano Concerto in G major, and the string quartets by Debussy and Grieg.

8. Mendelssohn: Octet – The greatest thing I ever did at age 16 was not crash my car. The greatest thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did at age 16 was write this masterpiece. No one had really been able to successfully combine two string quartets into a single ensemble before…and only a few have tried since. The word musicologists use most often to describe Mendelssohn’s Octet is “perfect.” Just give the first movement a whirl. If you don’t have goosebumps racing up and down your arms by the end, check your pulse. Also check out: Symphony No. 4, Italian; Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Piano Trio No. 1 in d minor.

9. Schubert: Impromptu in G-flat – Schubert is a composer known for his lieder (songs). This is a song for 10 fingers. It is excruciatingly simple and delectably sublime. The notes are easy enough to play, but the challenge of crafting an artful interpretation is immense. Each note requires a precious amount of care and contemplation. The pacing must be perfect otherwise what can be pure poetry ends up as just a lame collection of notes hanging out together. Also check out: String Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden; Symphony No. 5.

10. Verdi: Macbeth – No, this is not one of the great Verdi hits. However, there is something really special about this opera. It marks a turning point in Verdi’s compositional output. We get our first glimpse of Verdi, the mature dramatist, in this work. Shades of Otello and La forza del destino to come. If you like the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco, you’ll love the Chorus of the Scottish Exiles from Macbeth. Also check out: Otello, Don Carlo, and the String Quartet in e minor, which Verdi wrote during a break in rehearsals during a production of Aida.

The Sounds of Sunrise


Sunrise. It’s beautiful. Or so I’m told. I am *not* a morning person and can count the number of sunrises I’ve actually seen on my two hands and still have a finger left over to tap the snooze button on my alarm clock.

Many composers have also been inspired by sunrises. In fact, some of the most beautiful and exciting music out there depicts sunrise. Here are a few of my favorites.

1. Haydn – He took a couple of different cracks at sunrise, including the first-ever sunrise–that is, the creation of light in his oratorio The Creation. Haydn also gave us a symphony and a string quartet called “Sunrise.”

2. Richard Strauss – There’s the very famous one from Also Sprach Zarathustra (aka that music from 2001: A Space Odyssey), but Strauss also gave us a stunning musical depiction of sunrise in his Alpine Symphony.

3. Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite – From an alp to a giant hole in the ground. On the Trail is the most famous movement of Grofé’s most famous work what with the clip-clop and braying of the mules as they descend to the floor of the canyon, but earlier in the piece, Grofé gives us a vivid technicolor sunrise.

4. Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe – This one is probably my favorite. No real explanation needed. In my opinion, this is the best recording out there. But then, I’m a sucker for when the percussionist whacks the suspended cymbal as hard as possible.

5. Schoenberg: Gurrelieder – This is Arnold Schoenberg before he shook off the influence of post-romanticism and forged his own path. The entire cantata is wonderful and worth checking out, if you’ve never heard it. The last five minutes begin with a sunrise.

6. Peter Maxwell Davies: An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise – Care for some bagpipes with your sunrise? This one is a lot of fun! It starts with a wedding and then moves to the reception with plenty of drinking and dancing. The party continues all through the night until the sun comes up in the morning. The score actually calls for the bagpiper to come in at the back of the concert hall and walk down the aisle toward the stage.

Now that the sun’s up…about that coffee…

Kicking Brass: An Interview with the LA Phil’s Andrew Bain and Thomas Hooten

Thomas Hooten and Andrew Bain. Photo by CD Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

Thomas Hooten and Andrew Bain. Photo by CK Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

This week’s LA Philharmonic radio broadcast on Classical KUSC features two concerto performances by two LA Phil brass principals. Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet, will play Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat. Andrew Bain, principal French horn, will play Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4. Before the performance, which was recorded in February 2015, I sat down with Hooten and Bain backstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall to ask them about life in the LA Phil and their upcoming solo appearances with the orchestra.

I began by asking them each what they liked best about each other’s playing.

Andrew Bain: One of the great things about Tom—I mean, he plays with a beautiful sound and is incredibly musical—but his attention to detail and his constant desire to get the best result out of any sort of situation is really inspiring. It inspires me and it inspires the colleagues around him and definitely his section. I think it’s a really great part of his personality and a great trait. We aspire to that level as well.

Thomas Hooten: The first thing that comes to mind about Andrew’s playing is, I always get this sense that he’s in the moment of the music. He’s not in any rush. He seems really concerned about making the phrase as good as it can be. And I think that, for me—in relation to what he said about me—I’m always striving and driving to do the best I can, but it’s a nice reminder when I hear him play to take time, to make sure that you’re in the moment. And I think that’s really important for the listener. You can tell when Andrew comes in, in the orchestra we get this sense of, I wouldn’t say calm, but of breath. And it’s nice.

BL: How important is camaraderie and chemistry among the principals in the brass section?

Andrew Bain: That’s a good question, actually. I think a good, cohesive working environment is really important. And if people are friends outside of that, than that’s an extra advantage. But, I think more important is that people are striving for the same goals and that we’re working together to achieve a really great result. And I think we’re very fortunate that we have that. I think we have that in the entire brass and horn section. Everyone’s really wanting to see the growth of the section as we add new people. With the influx of new principals, that can be a challenging change for members of sections and for the rest of the orchestra, but everyone is definitely invested in getting the best result that we can.

Thomas Hooten: I would say, throughout orchestras in the country, there’s a wide variety of high artistic product and varying degrees of camaraderie. I would think, in the most logical outlook of it, that the more you get along, the more potential there is for greatness. I think orchestras are really good at hiring the best people—we have a process in place that makes sure there’s lots of vetting out—but, the potential after that of somebody actually learning to communicate with others in a way that inspires each other and also is a conduit for discovery: I think we have that here [at the LA Phil]. Through this process of us acquiring new people, I think that’s something that we’re looking for. Looking for new people that not only play great, but become citizens of the orchestra and what we want to do together.

BL: You guys both make your living at the back of the orchestra. What’s it like to take a turn up front in the soloist’s spotlight?

Thomas Hooten: I remember the first time I played a solo with a professional group—it was with the United States Marine Band—and we played From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific, by Herbert L. Clarke. The band started and I just remember jumping out of my skin because I hadn’t been at the very front of a group and heard that much sound, and I’ll never forget how juiced I was: “Wow, this is going to be amazing!” So [with the LA Phil] I’m looking forward to that and getting really close to the violins and hearing all the energy from them.

Andrew Bain: For the horn player it’s really fun, because we’re always at the back. To be up at the front and to actually be able to see the faces of the audience—that’s fun. And to see them when you empty the little bit of water, to see the look of panic and to feel the violins move back three paces when you play the first note, because the horn is loud, and it points backwards so they end up in the slipstream a little bit. It’s a lot of fun.

Photo by CD Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

Photo by CK Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

BL: Tom, the Trumpet Concerto by Joseph Haydn that you’re playing with the LA Phil…as I understand it, this was a piece that was designed to show off a bit of trumpet valve technology, is that correct?

Thomas Hooten: Almost right. The trumpet it was written for was a keyed trumpet, so it was very close to when they developed valves. That’s one of the interesting parts about this piece: when it was written, this keyed trumpet was a new invention. The horn didn’t actually sound that good. It was basically like a natural trumpet that had keys in it that would help certain pitches come out, which is why you can play half-steps and more partials in the lower harmonic series. This piece was written in 1796 and wasn’t premiered until 1800 and then wasn’t played again for, like, a hundred years. … I think probably why it didn’t get played that much was because it just wasn’t that good of a sound yet. But the subtleties of half-steps and stuff are absolutely interwoven into the piece itself and, in that respect, it’s a pioneering piece for the history of the trumpet.

Markus Würsch playing the keyed trumpet.

Markus Würsch playing the keyed trumpet.

BL: Thinking about that idea: even if it didn’t sound great on that instrument [the keyed trumpet], these are sounds, musically, that people weren’t used to hearing from a trumpet either. So, the concerto was super-new, modern music in its time.

Thomas Hooten: Right. The first notes of the concerto show you, “I can play an E-flat scale now.” And people probably said, “Wow, that’s amazing! This is so exciting!” Haydn has these whole themes throughout where the trumpet is going from a note in the harmonic series and then a half-step away. So, the significance of that, hopefully, isn’t lost on the audience. … The other thing I’m excited about is I commissioned a new cadenza for this concerto, written by James Stephenson, a composer who has been incredibly prolific in the last 10 years for brass in general. So, I’m excited about that. It’s a really fun cadenza: pushes the limits of what I can do. I’m excited about offering a new addition to Haydn cadenzas and hopefully people will like it and trumpet players will try it and not curse me for making it hard. [laughs]

BL: Andrew, the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 4 that you’re performing has an interesting story behind it as well. Who was this cheese shop-owning, French horn-playing Leutgeb guy anyway?

Andrew Bain: Leutgeb and Mozart had this banter-ful relationship, so Mozart tended to write a lot of [messages to Leutgeb] in the score—mostly abusive to poor Leutgeb. [laughs] Basically, the Mozart horn concerti are very fun, playful pieces. The fourth concerto is, in many ways, the deepest musically. It’s just an incredibly fun, happy piece. The slow movement is incredibly beautiful and has lots of lovely lyrical lines. But, yeah, Mozart just found this cheese monger guy that could play the horn and he wrote some pieces and that’s what it is. It’s not incredibly deep, serious music, but it’s incredibly beautiful and very much the essence of Mozart’s writing.

BL: Mozart seemed to always know what worked for a specific instrument. He obviously didn’t play the French horn, but does it sit nicely? Does it fit well?

Andrew Bain: Yeah, absolutely. It’s written in the key of E-flat [major], which always at the first rehearsal, at least half a dozen of the violinists will come up and say, “Ugh, E-flat?!” Because E-flat for the strings isn’t the most comfortable key. But for the horn it sits beautifully. In terms of the register, it actually works very well for the instrument. On the modern horn, it works very well because the fingering combinations actually work very well. On the natural horn, of course, you don’t have to worry about that, but it actually lies very well on the instrument. There are many ways you can play it. As the horn has evolved, the piece seems to for any sort of combination of generation of instruments that we use.

BL: And you use a modern horn?

Andrew Bain: Yeah. A modern double horn with three valves and a thumb valve. Blow in the small end and hope that it works! [laughs]

Photo by Gennia Cui via andrewbainhorn.com

Photo by Gennia Cui via andrewbainhorn.com

BL: Back to the orchestra…who is sitting in the hotter seat? Principal trumpet or principal French horn?

Thomas Hooten: I think it depends on the week. In all honesty, some of the things that Andrew has to do: the delicateness and going between being on top of the horn section and an incredibly loud brass section to literally seconds later blending with the woodwind section in the most delicate transparent [music]. That’s pretty scary. That being said, sometimes the trumpet seat can be just as scary. But, I look at his job and I think you got to have nerves of steel to be able to navigate that. That’s one of the things I really admire about Andrew is that he really goes between those roles in a beautiful way. Not in an ego-driven way, but really what serves the music best. So, I don’t know. I’m not going to say. Except maybe him. [laughs]

Andrew Bain: [laughing] I mean, I wouldn’t want to play the [trumpet solo in the] opening of Mahler 5. That’s some scary stuff.

Thomas Hooten: Especially since you don’t sound good on trumpet.

Andrew Bain: Yeah, I know! And Tom has actually heard me play the beginning of Mahler 5 on the trumpet, so he can categorically state how bad that sounds.

Thomas Hooten: Was that on a horn mouthpiece or was that a trumpet mouthpiece? I can’t remember.

Andrew Bain: It was actually a trumpet mouthpiece, but the thing is, I actually played it on a rotary trumpet, but it sounded like a piston trumpet. [laughs] I have a unique gift when it comes to trumpet playing. … It’s so difficult to compare [the principal horn and principal trumpet seats]. I mean, I like my job because of the flexibility and because I get to play a lot of the stuff with the winds and with the brass and with the strings. And it’s good fun to be adjusting to whatever’s going on in the orchestra. But I certainly think, there are moments when the trumpet is sitting on top of the orchestra and if things don’t sound how they’re supposed to sound, 2,300 people are going to find out about it. [laughs] And that, in itself, is exciting as well. This is where I think you need a special character and a special personality to be a principal trumpet player. You need to want to have that moment. We’re very fortunate that we have Tom because he loves that role and it really suits him and he sounds fantastic. So, they’re different roles and they’ve got their different scary and rewarding parts and I think you could probably say that about several other positions in the orchestra too.

GUEST POST: Vijay Gupta on the True Power of Music to Change Lives

The following is the Commencement Address to the Class of 2015 at the Colburn Conservatory of Music, given recently by LA Philharmonic violinist and Street Symphony founder Vijay Gupta. My thanks to Vijay for allowing me to share this inspiring speech here in this forum. -Brian



Earlier this week, I was on the 10 freeway in my Prius, and scanning the radio. I landed on the KPFK annual spring pledge drive. The announcer said “May is here! It’s time to raise money for public radio!!” What do you think the music was? “Dah da da da dada deee…dada da da da dada dee”—-oh my god, really? Again?

And when we think of Vivaldi, we hear music suited for the pledge drives of any season, but we don’t think of who he was – who he actually was. Vivaldi was a priest. He had a shock of red hair. He was rumored to have been born on the day of a massive earthquake in Venice. His mother was so grateful they survived that she immediately committed her baby Antonio to the priesthood. When he was ordained 25 years later, he was nicknamed, Il Prete Rosso: The Red Priest – a virtuoso violinist.

Vivaldi became legendary in his time. Even Bach stole his concertos. But in his lifetime, Vivaldi’s concertos weren’t played in a concert hall, or even in the courts of Vienna or the Esterhazy, like Mozart and Haydn. No, Vivaldi’s venue was an orphanage. A place called L’Ospedale della Pieta, where abandoned infants could be left at a tiny window called a ‘scaffetta’. When they were old enough, these orphans were handed an instrument and taught to play by Maestro Vivaldi. At 15, the boys had to leave to learn a trade, but the girls stayed.

So imagine: Vivaldi’s orchestra, the group that premiered pieces like the Four Seasons, which end up on public radio 300 years later, were mostly orphaned, abandoned teenage girls. They became some of the most celebrated musicians of their time.


300 years ago, at the beginning of the 18th century, something else was happening here, on this coast. Spanish missionaries had completed their journey across the American Plains. They stopped about 18 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and they began building missions along the coast of California.

And in the center of the city that they named after the Queen of the Angels, La Reina de Los Angeles, they named a street after the patron saint of wanderers, as they themselves had been wanderers across the continent. The legend of San Julian is similar to the story of Oedipus. Julian was born with a prophecy that he would one day murder his parents. And indeed, in an accident he did kill his parents, but he was cast out of society, forced to sleep on many a hard bed, and bear many scornful words from passersby.

Julian built a shelter on the side of a highway, giving the warmth of his home and hearth to anyone, without discrimination. One day, while fishing in the dead of winter, Julian saw a man drowning at the far end of the icy cold lake. As he rowed over, he could see that this man was severely deformed, covered in unsightly boils – he was a leper. He was a person society said was untouchable and unworthy, but Julian dragged him out, brought him back to his shelter.

Julian stoked his fire and fed this man every last scrap of food he had. And then, because the leper was hypothermic and shivering to death, Julian took off his own coat and literally embraced the man, and held him. They fell asleep that way, and in the morning, the leper had disappeared – replaced by the angel – who blessed Julian.

San Julian is the patron saint of travelers and people who build shelters. Also, strangely enough, of fiddlers. If ever Vivaldi were to have a patron Saint, I think it just might have been San Julian.


San Julian St. is a real place in Los Angeles. We could walk there from here. San Julian Street is Skid Row. It’s the epicenter of the homeless capital of the United States. Tonight, more than 10,000 people will sleep on a hard bed in the 50 square block area of downtown Los Angeles. 80,000 people in Southern California experience chronic homelessness. An overwhelming majority of homeless people are diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

On Skid Row and beyond, people experiencing mental illnesses often find themselves trapped in the revolving door of mass incarceration – as the de facto treatment of mental illness in the United States is incarceration. It’s no surprise that Twin Towers Jail, also walking distance from here, is effectively the country’s largest psychiatric institution.

But Skid Row is also a place of hope – it is truly the home of the modern day San Julians. The people living and working on Skid Row are some of the most courageous and warm people I have ever met. The people we call the ‘poorest’ are actually the most generous. I’ve found that some of my greatest and most humbling teachers are people whose homes might just be a chunk of sidewalk on San Julian Street, or a jail cell at Twin Towers.

Now the point of this story is not that you find a homeless man on the street, give him your coat, give a hug, and then take him home. The point is that if Vivaldi were making music today, he wouldn’t be at Zipper Hall or Walt Disney Concert Hall. You’d probably find him somewhere on Skid Row.

A few years ago I wanted to bring music to Skid Row. I reached out to heads of shelters and clinics all over LA. I would even go and personally play for them in their offices. No one returned phone calls, and it wasn’t because I played badly.

And then I went to Skid Row – to the mental health clinic on Maple Avenue – and I played. It was the social workers, many of whom had personally experienced the life of homelessness, addiction and despair – it was these social workers who reached into their pockets to pull out crumpled 5 and 10 dollar bills to pay for sandwiches and cookies and Sprites so that their homeless, mentally ill patients could attend our concerts in the basement conference room of the clinic. 170 concerts ago, that’s where we started Street Symphony.

Robert Schumann said, “To send light into the darkness of humanity’s heart – such is the duty of the artist.” At the beginning of Street Symphony, I thought we were bringing the light of music to people who could never come to the concert hall. We were bringing light into dark places. About a year ago, we played the first of Schumann’s Opus 41 quartets at the mentally ill ward at Twin Towers jail for 25 men in jumpsuits.

street symphony

Before we performed the slow movement, the cornerstone of the work, I had us play through just 8 bars. And in these 8 bars, the first violin and cello hold these whole notes in unison – these unmoving pillars of harmony. And the 2nd violin and viola play these 16th note slurred phrases back and forth that strain against the harmony, that try to escape into some happy place, to escape into release and relief, but each time, they are utterly trapped, stonewalled.

To me, this was Schumann’s pain and anguish. This was him losing his mind. And when I said that to the inmates, one of the men said to me, “Man, that’s the way I feel most days”. And I said, without even thinking, I genuinely responded, “Man, some days I guess I feel like that, too…” I caught myself. Because as performers, we weren’t allowed to go there. Did I really mean that?

I did. Some days I felt like that, too. I looked at my colleagues and they nodded. Some of them felt like that some days, too.

We weren’t just bringing light into dark places in our society. We were illuminating the dark places inside our own hearts. We were creating a space where it was ok to feel, to transcend and be transformed – not just for our audience, but for ourselves. And maybe even for the sheriffs and deputies. For the judge. Music, capital-M Music, wasn’t happening because we played perfectly. Music happened when we could embrace the most fragile and vulnerable parts of ourselves.

When we ostracize and criminalize the most fragile and vulnerable members of our society, we do it because we have pushed away the most fragile and vulnerable parts of ourselves. But if we can embrace the part of us that we shun – the deformed, leprosied parts of ourselves – we connect with what matters the most. We connect to our deepest values, and we give ourselves the permission to be authentic. To say what we really feel. To play how we really feel. Maybe even to truly understand what the composer was feeling.

Pablo Casals said, “I am a human being first, a musician second, a cellist third.”


When we connect with the part of us that is most authentic, we discover the seed of our creative spirit. This is the vulnerable place that the great composers write from: Vivaldi, as the shepherd mourning the brutal destruction of his crops in a summer storm; Brahms, walking alone in the woods; Mozart, in every slow movement, mourning the loss of his mother and sister; Schumann, grappling with schizophrenia, eventually dying in an asylum, trapped in the prison of his own mind.

We play this music because these stories are our stories. These are the stories of our world. They belong to everyone. Not just the people who can come to our concert halls.

We walk into a world wracked with pain and turmoil. There are stories happening right now – in Baltimore, in New York, in Cleveland, in Ferguson, Missouri – these are our stories, too.There are stories in Los Angeles. There are tens of thousands of stories who will sleep on Skid Row, or a jail cell tonight. It’s our job to listen. It’s our job to receive and embrace those stories. People are not going to listen to us because of how perfectly we think we play or how many hours we spend alone in a practice room. They listen because we have something to say.

So I say to you, class of 2015 – bring it. The world can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

Thank you for this tremendous honor.

The KUSC Classical Top 100 Analyzed


Well, the KUSC Classical Top 100 has been fully revealed and with it, some predictable results…and more than a few surprises as well.

To recap, we asked KUSC listeners to vote on their favorite pieces of classical music and then we counted down the top 100 vote-getters on the air. You can view the entire list here. Before I get to what surprised me the most about the results, here are a few things that did not shock me at all. Continue reading

11 Conductors Who Are Doing Something Else While Conducting

1. Herbert von Karajan grumpily churning the butter.

Karajan Churning Butter


2. Valery Gergiev mostly likely suffering from food poisoning.

Gergiev Has Food Poisoning


3a. Gustavo Dudamel suddenly noticing there’s a scorpion on his hand.

Dudamel Scorpion

3b. Gustavo Dudamel touches a hot stove and refuses to learn that he will get burned.

Dudamel Hot Stove


4. Pierre Boulez brings you the glass of wine you ordered which he totally disapproves of.

Boulez as a Waiter


5. Otto Klemperer does not want anyone disturbing his nap. Even Beethoven.

Klemperer Falling Asleep


6a. Esa-Pekka Salonen surfing while high, dude.

Salonen Surfing High

6b. Esa-Pekka Salonen is an angry Atlanta Braves fan.

Salonen Tomahawk Chop


7. Carlos Kleiber casually pulling a tiny baby out of his pocket.

Kleiber Baby Pocket


8a. Sir Simon Rattle: sex machine.

Rattle Watching

8b. Sir Simon Rattle reenacting a few tricks from his Vegas magic show.

Rattle Magic Tricks


9. Charles Munch talking to himself and not caring what you think.

Munch Talks to Himself


10a. Leonard Bernstein trying and failing to keep his heart from exploding.

Bernstein Ectsasy


10b. Leonard Bernstein looking like someone who’s really happy about stabbing his wife.

Bernstein Stabbing


11. Stanisław Skrowaczewski is genuinely moved by the music.

Skrowaczewski is Moved