Learning to Hate: A Story Whose Relevance Reaches Beyond the West Side

West Side Story

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo: my iPhone

At the climax of West Side Story, Maria brandishes the gun that killed her star-crossed lover, Tony, and declares that, “We all killed him,” because of the unbroken cycle of violence and hate between the two rival gangs.

“I can kill now,” Maria screams, “Because I hate now too!”

When they programmed a concert performance of West Side Story for this summer at the Hollywood Bowl, the LA Phil didn’t know the shows would take place at a moment when Americans are having an earnest, frank discussion about race, guns, power, and fear of The Other in the wake of a series of tragic murders by and of police. But as rapper Jay Z said when he released the song “Spiritual,” (written in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but not finished or released until last week) sadly, “this issue will always be relevant.”

And that’s the problem with America, the problem with this planet. These kinds of stories will always be relevant. West Side Story, performed Thursday night by the LA Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, felt chillingly relevant. The story of learning how to hate a human being simply because of who he or she is was relevant when Shakespeare told it in the 1590s, it was relevant when Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim told it in the 1950s, and it will be relevant when the next writer, composer, or filmmaker tells it in the future.

Thursday’s performance, for me, had the urgency of the moment on its side. Three hours before the downbeat, President Obama had gathered law enforcement officers and advocates together with activists for #BlackLivesMatter and families of victims of police violence for a public conversation about how each side viewed The Other and how we could find common ground on this contentious battleground. As he did in his speech at the police officers’ memorial service in Dallas, President Obama voiced his optimism, saying, “Nobody’s more hopeful than me. I’m Mr. Hope when it comes to these issues. I’ve said from the start that we are not as divided as we seem.”

Those words, and more, from the President’s town hall meeting were ringing in my ears as Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil started playing Leonard Bernstein’s music. Considering the challenging circumstances of the Hollywood Bowl, the performance was remarkably well-executed. (The orchestra was set up in front of a raised area that acted as the stage for the actors–the regular stage of the Bowl functioned as an orchestra pit. The actors were miles away from the conductor; sight-lines seemed awkward for the actors and some of the musicians of the orchestra. Hearing one another is always difficult on a stage that large.)

Still, it was well-executed…and also fun. The audience was primed to be swept up in this familiar show. They snapped along with “Cool,” and shouted out at the appropriate times during “Mambo.” For purely nostalgic reasons, I was super-excited to hear Dudamel and the LA Phil do “Mambo,” because that’s the first piece of music I ever saw Dudamel conduct. (You know, that 2007 performance from the BBC Proms with the dancing, trumpet-spinning Bolivares.)

Solea Pfeiffer, making her Hollywood Bowl debut, was stunning as Maria. As Tony, Jeremy Jordan was solid, but played the character a bit on the smarmy side. Drew Foster brought the house down as Action in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a song which is more than just comic relief–it’s the song which points us back to the thesis of the entire show and forward to the climactic moment with Maria brandishing the gun.

In “Gee, Officer Krupke,” Action looks to everyone else as he searches for a reason as to why he’s “so bad…psychologically disturbed…a mess…sociologically sick…a jerk…no good…no damn good.” He blames his parents, society, the system, anyone but himself.

Later, after Action and a group of Jets assault Anita in the drug store and she leaves to go set the fatal flaw in motion, Doc asks Action, “What does it take to get through to you? When do you stop? You make this world lousy!”

To which, Action replies, “That’s the way we found it, Doc.”

For Maria, however, it’s no one’s fault but her own. In the end, gun drawn, Maria owns her own hate. She says, “We all killed him,” but she includes herself in that indictment. In so doing, Maria accepts responsibility for the perpetuation of the story. “I can kill now, because I hate now too!”

Tony’s death is not the tragedy. That Tony and Maria are never able to realize their love for each other is not the tragedy. The tragedy is that we will continue to learn to hate The Other. The tragedy is that the story will go on.

Ultimately, Maria lays her weapon down, but Leonard Bernstein’s music suggests she doesn’t lay her hate down with it. The upper strings and woodwinds try to resolve the drama with a reprise of the theme from “Somewhere,” but the lower strings and timpani punctuate this with the dissonance of a tri-tone. The interval that was designated as “dangerous” by medieval composer Guido d’Arezzo and referred to as “The Devil in Music” in the 18th century is the interval that punctuates the conclusion and attempted resolution of this story.

Hate wins in West Side Story. But in life, love must win. Otherwise, we keep telling this same tragic story over and over and over again. Accepting responsibility is a start. Maria doesn’t say the Jets made her hate or the cops made her hate or the culture of gang violence made me hate. She just says, “I hate.”

When we recognize hate of The Other in ourselves, how do we respond? Do we blame someone or something else like Action did? Or do we accept responsibility like Maria did? We all fail. We all hate. It’s what happens next that counts.

Resurrection of Hope

alton-sterling-and-philando-castileIt’s been a hell of a week.

As we struggled to process the murder of Alton Sterling, we learned of the murder of Philando Castile. The Washington Post tells us 509 people have been killed by police this year. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune tells us that 148 people have been killed by police in Minnesota since 2000 and no officers have been charged in any of the deaths.

Then Dallas happens.

And we are reminded that one of the greatest strengths of America–its diversity–is also one of the greatest sources of societal fragility. We are only strong when we value others as highly as we value ourselves. We are only great when we recognize where we have failed our fellow citizens and alter our course.

Maybe because it happened in Dallas, maybe because it happened on the 156th birthday of Gustav Mahler…whatever reason, I was thinking about Leonard Bernstein’s response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Two days after Kennedy’s death, Bernstein conducted a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in a live CBS television broadcast.

(This is the only fragment of that historic performance that is available on YouTube.)

On the surface, Mahler’s second symphony seems like a curious choice to memorialize a great tragedy. It’s the “Resurrection” Symphony. It’s a triumphant work with one of the most ecstatic conclusions in all of music. Why Mahler 2? Why not something with a little more emotional weight, like a Requiem…or the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony?

The day after the live broadcast–also the day of President Kennedy’s funeral–Leonard Bernstein explained his choice in a speech at the United Jewish Appeal Benefit that has since become as famous as it is inspirational. (His conclusion, pictured, has become a meme that gets shared–overshared, tbqh–in classical music circles in the aftermath of tragedy.)

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Reading from handwritten notes, Bernstein said:

“Last night the New York Philharmonic and I performed Mahler’s Second Symphony—“The Resurrection” –in tribute to the memory of our beloved late President. There were those who asked: Why the “Resurrection” Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March from the “Eroica”? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of man that follows from this death, we must somehow father strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished. In mourning him, we must be worthy of him.”

Bernstein chose to perform music that inspires the resurrection of hope in the midst of shocking, tragic, and seemingly hopeless circumstances.

This has so much relevance for us today, as our nation continues a contentious conversation about race and power and guns and fear and we seek to find answers to extremely nuanced and complicated problems.

Through art, we express and confront the deepest emotional trauma we face as well as vivid aspirational visions of what we can achieve as a human race. Art showcases the best that humanity has to offer.

We can do better. We must do better. It is not easy. Life’s most important challenges never are. But with Leonard Bernstein’s words ringing in our ears, “we must somehow father the strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving.”

This has been a hell of a week. A lot of weeks are hell. And when we don’t have the strength inside of ourselves to resurrect any hope whatsoever, thank goodness we can turn to music.

Mahler’s second symphony begins with a defiant funeral march. We grieve, angry that we have once again been forced to grieve. The symphony ends in triumph with words, written by Mahler himself, that remind us that death is not meaningless when it is transformational.

“O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!

 

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!

 

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!”

Conductors Conducting the Climax of Mahler 2

The Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler is the biggest, most epic symphonic statement since Beethoven’s 9th. It’s subtitled “Resurrection,” and the work climaxes with the words:

O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

Mahler wrote the text himself and set it to the most glorious, heaven-storming music that had ever been written.

Here’s what it sounds like:

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No doubt, Bernstein is the best. He seems to be genuinely reacting to the ecstasy of the moment. As you can imagine, such an epic musical and poetic statement elicits an incredible amount of podium histrionics from various conductors. A close second to Bernstein, in terms of raw emotional choreography, is Sir Simon Rattle.

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You’d think Gustavo Dudamel would have a similarly crazy reaction to this music–after all, one of the great inspirations in his life is Leonard Bernstein–but here, he is remarkably restrained.

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Oh, sure, he’s still into the music, but not with his trademark unbridled passion.

If there’s one general consistency throughout conductors’ interpretations of Mahler 2, it’s that the mouth must be open. From typically reserved Claudio Abbado…

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…to the exuberance of Zubin Mehta.

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Valery Gergiev (not famous for being a Mahler conductor) tries to keep his mouth closed…and, it seems, choke back some tears.

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Myung-whun Chung has ice in his veins and wields his baton with the precision of a surgeon.

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Pierre Boulez has steely resolve that borders on stoicism. (Would you expect anything else from Pierre Boulez?)

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Mariss Jansons wins the award for Best Facial Expression.

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Christoph Eschenbach wins the award for Best Head Movement.

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And Riccardo Chailly wins the award for Most Deranged.

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So, there you have it. The many faces of the ecstasy and bliss that is Mahler’s Second Symphony. Now, go listen to a complete performance of it. I suggest this one:

LA Phil 2016-17: By the Numbers

press-1617-head

I do this every year: leave the punditry to others and tally up the stats. Here’s what 2016-17 looks like at the LA Phil. Unlike in years past, I have only included performances by the LA Phil–no visiting artists.

  • 21 commissions, 14 world premieres, 5 U.S. premieres, and 5 West Coast premieres. This beats last year’s world premiere record by two and shatters the commissions number from last year, which was 12.
  • In 2016-17, the LA Phil will present music by 1 Baroque composer, 7 Classical-era composers, 24 Romantics, and 46 composers from the 20th/21st Century. (Yes, I realize that “20th/21st C” is a broad category that doesn’t tell the whole story.)
  • That’s 1% Baroque, 7% Classical, 24% Romantic, and 46% 20th/21st Century.
  • Of the 78 composers on the 2016-17 season, 7 are living. That’s 9%. If you include the Green Umbrella concerts, that number increases to 17 of 88, or 19%. This represents a steep decline from the current LA Phil season, which features 42 living composers out of a total of 107, or 39%.
  • Of the 78 composers on the 2016-17 season, 0 are women. If you include the Green Umbrella concerts, that number increases to 2 of 88, or 2.3%.
  • The LA Phil will perform 97 different works in 2016-17: 1 Baroque, 9 Classical, 36 Romantic, and 51 20th/21st Century.
  • That’s 1% Baroque, 9% Classical, 37% Romantic, and 53% 20th/21st Century
  • Of the 9 Classical-era works, all are either by Haydn or Mozart.
  • The most-performed composers of the season will be Schubert (8), Sibelius (6), Mahler (5), and a bunch of composers tied at 4, including Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel, Brahms, and Stravinsky.
  • Of the 42 different programs (including Green Umbrellas), 41 will be conducted by men. The one female conductor is the LA Phil’s Associate Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.
  • 74 visiting artists: 43 men; 31 women. Of the 31 women, 22 share the solo spotlight with a male soloist. Nine get the stage to themselves (all with male conductors).
  • In 2016-17, the LA Phil turns 98 years old, Walt Disney Concert Hall celebrates its lucky 13th birthday, and Gustavo Dudamel has five years remaining on his recently-extended contract as Music and Artistic Director.

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How to Fix Classical Music

old pianoMoney (1950). Lascivious musicians (1530). The gramophone (1930). Money (1969). Claude Debussy (1902). The violin (1740). Money (1683). YouTube (2013). Ludwig van Beethoven (1827). Money (1903). Popular music (1324). The compact disc (2009). Money (1987). Figured bass (1609). An aging audience (1960s-present).

For centuries, classical music has been on the brink of death. Over the years, many things have been blamed for its imminent demise. Two years ago, a writer for Slate finally called it. Time of death: 11:52 p.m., January 21, 2014.

There were swift and vigorous responses from all corners of The Internet. “Classical music isn’t dead! Because Dudamel.” “Classical Music can’t be dead–I just saw Classical Music last night at a club in Brooklyn. He was drinking a cocktail and grinding on Bryce Dessner.”

Now, nearly two years to the day since Slate proclaimed classical music to be dead, Medium just did the same. (As Charles Rosen once quipped, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”) This time, though, the culprit was rather odd.

Classical music was killed by classical music.

That is, the term “classical music” has too much baggage and is contributing to a negative perception of the art form. Therefore, we must stop calling classical music classical music.

The solution?

“Classical music” should be called “composed music.”

Here’s why (according to the term-coiner):

  • it’s inclusive, covers all eras
  • avoids stigma of “contemporary” or “modern”
  • it’s plainspoken
  • celebrates the composer
  • refers to how audiences should listen (i.e. in a state of composure)

So……..I disagree with this assessment/terminology for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that ALL music is composed. Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Rage Against the Machine, Kanye West, Juanes, Tom Jones, Beyoncé, and the Kronos Quartet all perform composed music. Even the great jazz improvisers perform music that is composed. It’s just that the composing is happening right there in the moment.

The term “composed music” subtly prioritizes music that is written down over music that is not written down. The author even went so far as to suggest that improvised music be referred to as “semi-composed music,” as if that doesn’t at all smack of notation privilege. This name change accomplishes little besides removing the monocle from an elitist, rebranding him slightly–dogma’s got a brand new bag.

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I could go on, but my beef isn’t specifically with the term “composed music” so much as it is with the continually-recurring premise that gave birth to the new term: classical music is dying/has died and I’m going to breathe new life into it with some slick new marketing.

You want to know how to fix classical music? Stop trying to fix classical music. Stop believing the myth that classical music is dying. Stop lamenting that the average age of a classical music audience tends to skew high. (Who cares? It always has.) Give credit to young people (yes, millennials) for their open-mindedness. Allow them to come to classical music in their own way.

The term “classical music” is indeed problematic. It doesn’t fully or accurately describe all the music associated with it. But language evolves naturally–you can’t force change. When the time comes for a new term for classical music to be deployed, the right one will arise.

Or maybe it won’t.

Because using words to talk about an art form that transcends words is hard and sometimes sucks.

At least we still have music.

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

Composer Emojis

Because no one has done this yet…at least not that I have found.

😇 Bach – soli deo gloria
👂 Beethoven – say what?
😲 Berlioz – currently hallucinating
😴 Brahms – go to sleep
⏳ Cage – time matters
🗽 Copland – the Dean
🌜 Debussy – ask Clair
🚂 Dvorak – he really liked trains
🎓 Elgar – these circumstances call for pomp
🔪 Gesualdo – stabbiest composer ever
😑🔢 Glass – count on Einstein
🚀🔭👽 Holst – is there life on Uranus?
😎 Liszt – too cool for school
🏊🔨 Mahler – hammertime, also he liked to swim
😏 Mozart – get it?
👻🎃 Mussorgsky – his mountain was bald
😮 Puccini – sing it loud so i can hear you. then die, soprano, die.
😍 Rachmaninoff – helping people get it on since 1887
🚑 Ravel – impressions of a wwi ambulance driver
🔁 Reich – rinse and repeat
🐝Rimsky-Korsakov – orchestrates like a butterfly…
🐓🐴🐢🐘🐟🐠🐚🐇🐰🎹 Saint-Saëns – most sophisticated carny ever
🎨 Scriabin – sounds like blue
😬 Shostakovich – KGB, 123
👤 Shostakovich – you won’t see me
❄️⛄️ Sibelius – ice, ice baby
💃 Strauss, Jr. – so you think you can dance
😤 Richard Strauss – i can be your hero, baby
😱 Stravinsky – shocking & awesome
😭 Tchaikovsky – cry me a river
😌 Vaughan Williams – in the pensive country
👹 Vivaldi – the red devil
💐🌴🍂❄️ Vivaldi – clearly, not from SoCal
😈 Wagner – a very naughty boy
👑 Walton – 2 crownz 2 marches
🎬 John Williams – the force is strong with this one
Okay…who’d I miss? Which ones did I get wrong?