5 Classical Music Stories That Prove 2016 Wasn’t a Total Loss



image: @christhebarker

I read the news this year, oh boy…

And so the Year of Death and Brexit and #MAGA comes to a merciful end. Yes, it was a horrific year for unity and truth and famous people staying alive. The awfulness extended to the classical music world as well. We said goodbye to far too many titans this year: Pierre Boulez, Auréle Nicolet, Steven Stucky, Louis Lane, Otto-Werner Mueller, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Brian Asawa, Jane Little, Huguette Dreyfuss, Gustav Meier, Inocente Carreño, Gregg Smith, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Neil Black, Sir Neville Marriner, Zoltán Kocsis, Jules Eskin, Pauline Oliveros, Karel Husa, Heinrich Schiff, and many many others.

But 2016 wasn’t all bad.


1. A new work by Igor Stravinsky was performed. That’s right, music by Stravinsky from 1908 that most scholars believed lost forever, was discovered last year and given its first performance in 2016. You can watch/listen to it here.

Berlin orchs.jpg

2. Three Berlin orchestras performed a free concert for refugees. It was a rare joint appearance by the greatest of the Berlin orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin. The concert was titled “Welcome in our Midst,” and featured performances by all three orchestras and their principal conductors Sir Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, and Iván Fisher, who addressed the audience in Arabic at the beginning of the concert. “As musicians, we feel welcome anywhere in the world,” the three conductors said, in a joint statement. “We hope that this also applies to people who have been hit hard by fate and who were forced by war, hunger or persecution to leave their homeland.”


3. For the first time in 113 years, an opera written by a woman received a performance at The Metropolitan Opera. It’s a gasp-worthy stat that represents a reality at The Met that is wholly indefensible and which led composer Kaija Saariaho–whose opera L’Amour de Loin received a highly-successful run this December–to declare with a certain amount of exasperation, “You know, half of humanity has something to say, also.” Are you listening, arts org admins?


4. An orchestra, comprised entirely of refugee musicians, gave its first performance. The Refugee Orchestra Project was founded last year, but gave its concert debut in May, 2016, and its second performance a month later on World Refugee Day. The ensemble, led by conductor (and refugee from Russia) Lydiya Yankovskaya, performed music by composers who also were forced to flee their countries as refugees. Yankovskaya says, “I hope to demonstrate just how many refugees are around us each day and what we bring to the world.”


5. Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) had a banner year. The orchestra of young musicians (many of whom come from extremely challenging circumstances) celebrated its 10th anniversary year in a major way. (YOLA is a partnership among the LA Philharmonic, Expo Center, and Heart of Los Angeles.) In October, they capped off the party with their very first tour on their own, with a finale concert in Oakland conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Earlier in the year, members of YOLA had the honor of performing at the White House at a dinner honoring the previous year’s National Medal of Arts winners. YOLA musicians also traveled to London to lead a symposium on music education and performed new music at the venerable Ojai Music Festival. Oh…and you may have also seen them at Super Bowl 50, alongside Coldplay, Beyoncé, and Bruno Mars.

So, yeah…2016 wasn’t a total loss. (And there were many more incredible classical music stories this past year that are not listed here.) Tonight, I’ll raise a glass to more inspiration and uplift via classical music in 2017. Happy New Year!

A Classical Music World Series


For nostalgia-lovers, the 2016 World Series is a gold mine. There are dozens of articles out there recounting what life was like in the years the Chicago Cubs (1908) and Cleveland Indians (1948) last won the World Series. The drought has been so long for both teams…and I thought it would be fun to take a look (and listen) to what was happening in the world of classical music during those years.

At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a playlist of much of the music that I mention here. Feel free to check it out and share this post with others.

1908 in classical music:

  • A number of great symphonies receive their first performance, including Mahler’s 7th, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd, and Elgar’s 1st.
  • Claude Debussy marries his mistress, the singer Emma Bardac. His Children’s Corner Suite, for solo piano, is premiered in Paris.
  • Same town, a few months earlier, the orchestration of Maurice Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole is given its first performance. Ravel is accused of plagiarizing Debussy’s Habanera in the work, so Ravel carefully indicates on the score that the Rhapsodie was actually written many years earlier as a work for two pianos.
  • Alexander Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy receives its premiere in New York. The writer Henry Miller describes it as being “like a bath of ice, cocaine, and rainbows.”
  • Igor Stravinsky writes one of his first works for orchestra, Feu d’artifice (Fireworks). The work isn’t premiered until 1909, but when it is, a fellow named Serge Diaghilev is in attendance and he quickly commissions a ballet, which is quite successful (The Firebird) and leads to more Diaghilev commissions, including Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
  • The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was known as the Theodore Thomas Orchestra (named for its founder and first music director). Its music director was Frederick Stock, who held that post from 1905-1942.
  • The Cleveland Orchestra did not yet exist.
  • Conductor Herbert von Karajan, violinist David Oistrakh, and composer Olivier Messiaen are born.
  • Composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and violinist/composer Pablo de Sarasate die.
  • It’s not classical music, but I just found this too good to ignore: 1908 was also the year that a certain baseball song was published. You know it well. It is still sung at every single baseball game 108 years later.



1948 in classical music:

  • The great maestro of the radio airwaves, Arturo Toscanini, makes his television debut, conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in music by Richard Wagner.
  • Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is aired on television for the very first time. Again, Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra and the chorus master was a 32-year-old up-and-coming conductor named Robert Shaw.
  • Columbia Records introduces a new long-playing record: 33 1/3 rpm and a whopping 25 minutes of music per side!
  • Still four years away from his landmark 1952 composition 4’33”, two works by composer John Cage were premiered on a concert at Black Mountain College in North Carolina: the Suite for Toy Piano and In A Landscape.
  • Less than a year before he died, 85-year-old Richard Strauss, composes his Four Last Songs. He does not live long enough to hear the first performance (by Kirsten Flagstad), which takes place in 1950 in London.
  • Soprano Eleanor Steber (with the Boston Symphony, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky) sings the first performance of Samuel Barber’s rhapsody on texts by James Agee, Knoxville: Summer of 1915.
  • On a commission from jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, Aaron Copland completes his Clarinet Concerto. It would be two years before the work would receive its first performance, by Goodman and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner, who would become the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra three years afterwards.
  • Andrei Zhdanov, Chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, accuses Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, and other Soviet composer of writing inappropriate and formalist music. Most of Shostakovich’s music is banned and he is fired from his job at the Moscow Conservatory. He writes film music to help earn money to pay his rent.
  • A number of great symphonies receive their world premieres, including Lutosławski’s 1st, David Diamond’s 4th, Walter Piston’s 3rd, Hans Werner Henze’s 1st, and George Antheil’s 5th.
  • George Szell, in his second season as the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, is in the process of revitalizing the orchestra and raising its profile to become one of the top American orchestras.
  • Former Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Artur Rodzinski spends one season (1947-48) as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As was the case in previous posts, he does not get along with the orchestra’s board and quickly leaves his post with the CSO.
  • Cellist Misha Maisky, soprano Kathleen Battle, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and conductor Richard Hickox are born.
  • Composer Manuel Ponce, hotelier and theater impresario Rupert D’Oyly Carte, and composer Franz Lehár die.

Please enjoy the playlist below! At the end, I’ve included side-by-side performances of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, performed by Reiner/Chicago and Szell/Cleveland…you know, just for fun!

A Devastating Double-Bill: Thoughts on Elektra and Mahler 9 at Lincoln Center (part 2)


(To read Part 1 of this post, please click here.

The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic don’t get together in the offseason and plan out their repertoire as a team, so it was pure coincidence that Richard Strauss’ dark psychodrama, Elektra, opened at The Met the same weekend the Philharmonic was playing Mahler’s bleak final symphony. Lincoln Center’s coincidence was my good fortune and turned into the reason my wife and I booked a long overdue trip to New York the week we did.

A blistering one-act revenge opera in a brand new staging that emphasizes the inner turmoil of the characters over their actions? Yes, please! A tragic symphony which disintegrates at the end and which is quite possibly a farewell to life itself? You betcha!Hamilton this was not. (Neither was it Hamilton prices, which meant we could also afford to eat meals while in New York.)

Often, when I get really excited about a particular performance, it fails to live up to my expectations. But in the cases of Elektra (conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and featuring a stellar cast led by soprano Nina Stemme in the title role) and Mahler 9 (conducted by a legendary Mahlerian, the eminent Bernard Haitink), both exceeded expectations–for different reasons. Both, also, were enhanced by art exhibitions we visited during the day.

My thoughts on Mahler 9:

  • “Unfinished paintings are more admired than the finished because the artist’s actual thoughts are left visible.” -Pliny the Younger
  • That’ll make more sense in a moment.
  • I had never seen Bernard Haitink conduct live, but of course, I know his incredible recordings, especially of Mahler. There was plenty of Mahler pedigree in this performance: Haitink spent 27 years at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra–an ensemble which Mahler adored. Mahler himself was music director of the New York Philharmonic when he wrote his Ninth Symphony.
  • I’ve become a bit of a Mahler 9 groupie, but before this concert, it had been quite a while since I had heard anyone other than Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil perform it.
  • I’ve always loved the way the symphony disintegrates at the end. It’s such a wonderful metaphor for life, as well as a bit more than a metaphor for Mahler’s own life. I tend to subscribe to the Leonard Bernstein interpretation of Mahler 9: the beginning rhythm is Mahler’s irregular heartbeat and each of the movements represent a farewell of some kind.
    • 1st movement –  farewell to family and friends
    • 2nd movement – farewell to the dance
    • 3rd movement – farewell to the city
    • 4th movement – farewell to life
  • Of course, that is only an interpretation, and certainly one could argue that Mahler was in good spirits when he wrote his Ninth Symphony (which he was, at least publicly). But Mahler was also highly superstitious and avoided writing a Ninth Symphony for fear of the Curse of the Ninth.
  • What is clear is this is symphony is extremely fraught, psychologically. Which made it a perfect follow-up the night after seeing the intense psychodrama that is Strauss’s Elektra at The Metropolitan Opera.
  • Even though he made his United States debut with the LA Phil (1959), Bernard Haitink doesn’t make it to Los Angeles anymore. So, the only opportunity for a West Coaster like me to see the 87-year-old conduct is to head east. Haitink conducting Mahler 9 at the New York Philharmonic was one of two reasons my wife and I scheduled our New York vacation when we did. (Salonen conducting Elektra at The Met was the other.)
  • The performance was so worth it: Haitink’s interpretation changed my perspective on Mahler 9–something I didn’t think was possible. Something that may not have been possible without the art exhibition we had seen earlier in the day at the newly-opened museum at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Met Breuer (pronounced BROY-er).


  • That’s where that Pliny quote (first bullet point above) comes from. One of the two inaugural shows at The Met Breuer is called “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.” It is two floors and 197 works dating from the Renaissance to the present which ask the question: When is a work of art actually finished?
  • Every work in the show is in some way unfinished: either accidentally, intentionally, experimentally, or conceptually.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist died during its creation.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist became unsatisfied with it and abandoned its creation.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist was pushing the boundaries of artistic convention.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist was making a specific statement about the importance of process over product.
  • Each work is a window into the mind and soul of each artist.
  • So, too, is Mahler 9.
  • Bernard Haitink certainly has conducted this symphony dozens, if not hundreds, of times. His concept of the work is totally internalized. Having lived with the work for this many years, allows him more artistic freedom in his interpretation.
  • That interpretation last weekend with the New York Philharmonic allowed me to hear the symphony with nearly fresh ears.
  • For the first time, I heard Mahler 9 as a symphony where it’s not just the final movement which vaporizes into tiny strands of music as the music gradually and devastatingly falls apart.
  • In fact, all four movements of Mahler 9 disintegrate into nothingness. Throughout the entire symphony, Mahler is foreshadowing what will happen in the finale.
    • In the first movement, the falling two-note “lebwohl” (farewell) motive, which launches all of the thematic material of the nearly 30-minute movement, eventually takes over at the end. Just two notes, which get passed among members of the wind section, the French horns, and eventually the solo violin, before the eerie sound of the piccolo finally plays a single high note that dies away without resolution. Accidental incompletion.
    • In the second movement, three dances vie for supremacy and in the end, none of them win. Instead, Mahler just gives us a sinister coda which features the contrabassoon and the piccolo again. Experimental incompletion.
    • In the third movement, the main theme is fragmentary to begin with and the ending takes the bits and pieces and ramps them up to warp speed before crashing into a wall. Conceptual incompletion.
  • The fourth movement collapse is well-documented, and as all these new revelations about the first three movements had come to me during the course of the performance, I was more than eager to settle in for one of my favorite movements in all of classical music.
  • Haitink took the fourth movement at a rather brisk pace, which was an incredibly risky and courageous move. It’s way easier to milk it for all its worth. That’s what the people want. But Haitink’s tempo was more matter-of-fact. It was as if he was saying, “I’ve set you up for this in the first three movements. You know what’s going to happen. Let’s not pretend this is going to end with a triumphant adagio, like the third symphony does.”
  • In the past, I’ve heard the fourth movement of the ninth as having three big farewells to romance, with the third as the ultimate climax. With Haitink, though, I now hear the fourth movement as three unfinished paintings: the first two are left unresolved (conceptually unfinished) to prepare us for the final unfinished painting. It’s the one that should be the Big Finish, the ultimate climax. But in fact, it too, is unfinished.
  • For the first time in the symphony, we have a painting that is intentionally left unfinished. And that is what makes Mahler 9 so devastating. Sure, there’s a big cymbal crash (that, again, reminds us of the big cymbal crash at the climax of the finale of the third symphony), but unlike the third, the cymbal crash of the ninth is not a crash of culmination. The cymbal crash of the ninth is a cymbal crash of failure.
  • (At the performance I attended, this final cymbal crash also came about half a beat early, which can’t have been on purpose, but which actually added to my experience of the performance.)
  • The “climax” of Mahler 9 is the moment when Mahler puts down his brushes with resignation, realizing that he has created something that can never be complete.
  • “To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul.” -Pablo Picasso
  • And this, to me, is the essence of Mahler 9. We could learn a lot from Picasso and Pliny the Younger. I still see Mahler 9 as devastating music. But after Haitink and The Met Breuer, I now also see Mahler 9 as one of the most supremely uplifting pieces of music ever written. Because there is fulfillment in the unfulfilled. There is joy in the process.
  • Who says when something has reached completion? Who decides when process becomes product?
  • Mahler never wanted to finish his ninth symphony. He avoided No. 9 by calling what should have been his ninth symphony Das Lied von der Erde. Failure to finish can actually mean success. After all, everything we create in life is, in a way, incomplete.
  • So, thank you, Bernard Haitink and the New York Philharmonic. Thank you, also, The Met Breuer…and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Nina Stemme, The Metropolitan Opera, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.
  • Collectively, you reshaped my concept of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

A Devastating Double-Bill: Thoughts on Elektra and Mahler 9 at Lincoln Center (part 1)



The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic don’t get together in the offseason and plan out their repertoire as a team, so it was pure coincidence that Richard Strauss’ dark psychodrama, Elektra, opened at The Met the same weekend the Philharmonic was playing Mahler’s bleak final symphony. Lincoln Center’s coincidence was my good fortune and turned into the reason my wife and I booked a long overdue trip to New York the week we did.

A blistering one-act revenge opera in a brand new staging that emphasizes the inner turmoil of the characters over their actions? Yes, please! A tragic symphony which disintegrates at the end and which is quite possibly a farewell to life itself? You betcha! Hamilton this was not. (Neither was it Hamilton prices, which meant we could also afford to eat meals while in New York.)

Often, when I get really excited about a particular performance, it fails to live up to my expectations. But in the cases of Elektra (conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and featuring a stellar cast led by soprano Nina Stemme in the title role) and Mahler 9 (conducted by a legendary Mahlerian, the eminent Bernard Haitink), both exceeded expectations–for different reasons. Both, also, were enhanced by art exhibitions we visited during the day.

Click here to read my thoughts on Mahler 9.

My thoughts on Elektra:

  • Elektra is riveting, jaw-dropping, spellbinding, mesmerizing, and everything a one-act opera should be. The drama seethes from beginning to end and Strauss’ score is nothing short of heart-pounding.
  • The story is all about Elektra’s quest for revenge against her mother and her mother’s lover, who before the opera begins, have killed Elektra’s father, Agamemnon. Most of the opera is Elektra trying to convince people why her mother deserves to die. Spoiler alert, the killing does eventually take place but that action is only the final 20 minutes or so. The real drama in Elektra takes place in the mind of the title character.
  • Such a psychological opera requires a production with similar focus. The music *is* great, of course, but a park-and-bark version of Elektra totally misses the point.
  • Director Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra was hailed as a masterpiece when it debuted in 2013 at theFestival d’Aix-en-Provence. Audiences at The Met have known it was coming for three years and they’ve been waiting excitedly.
  • What makes the Chéreau staging so incredible is the insight you get into each character through their movements on stage. (This is where being married to a physical therapist pays dividends: professionally, my wife analyzes people’s movements to determine how their injuries or chronic conditions are affecting them. That’s certainly a physical process, but there’s a ton of psychology involved as well. So, she noticed things on stage in even greater detail than I was able to.)
  • We feel Elektra’s inner turmoil through the tiniest of gestures: a head tilting in one direction or another; her posture when addressing her mother directly; her facial expressions (bring opera glasses…or go to the HD theater screening); her fear and hesitancy as she unwraps the axe (the one that killed her father) that she’s been hiding.
  • Most prominently and most powerfully we see the physicality of psychology exhibited in the opera’s final scene: after Elektra’s brother Orest (or however you want to spell/pronounce it) has killed their mother and her lover, Elektra sings of celebration and dance. But she cannot dance. She is physically unable to move.
  • Nina Stemme’s performance of this moment was so devastating. It was like watching someone turn to stone in front of you. She kept trying to move–even getting to her feet and making a few triumphant movements–but in the end, she ended up glued to the ground. In other productions, Elektra dances herself to death. Her greatest purpose in life has been accomplished and the rage and revenge that has completely filled her soul now has no object. In this production, Elektra is slowly killed from the inside out.


  • Nina Stemme (Elektra), Waltraud Meier (Elektra’s mother, Klytämnestra), and Adrianne Pieczonka (Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis) made for the most formidable triumvirate of singers I’ve ever seen grace an opera stage…and Eric Owens (Orest) added his trademark power to the lineup.
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen fuels the psychodrama with his interpretation. New York audiences really love Salonen. Other than Nina Stemme (Elektra), Salonen got by far the biggest cheers. New York audiences also seem to really want Salonen in their city long-term. The performance of Elektra we attended was on the same day James Levine announced he was retiring as The Met’s music director. As we were walking out of the opera house, I overheard several conversations among patrons who were suggesting Salonen take over for Levine. The next day in his review of the performance for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini suggested the same.


  • Earlier in the day, my wife and I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art in its bright, new Renzo Piano-designed building, which opened in May 2015. One of the featured exhibitions, “Laura Poitras: Astro Noise,” was fresh in my memory as I took in Elektra. Poitras is an artist, filmmaker, and journalist, and this is her first solo museum exhibition.
  • The show focuses on mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, Guantánamo Bay Prison, occupation, and torture. One of the pieces was raw, unedited footage that she shot while embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. While she was shooting, the unit she was embedded with was ambushed and a number of the servicemen and women were injured or killed. Poitras was detained and questioned without being told why. It was only after a lengthy lawsuit against the government that she learned that the U.S. military thought she might have provided information to Iraqi troops to aid in the ambush. She offered to show the government the footage she shot that day, but they declined to watch it.
  • As I watched Elektra melt down psychologically and then eventually completely bring about her own demise because of emotions that, while understandable, ultimately led to immoral and unjust actions, I couldn’t help but feel a connection between Elektra and post-9/11 America.
  • Final thoughts: if you’re going to be in New York during the run of Elektra (through May 7), go see it. If not, go to the HD theater screening of this production on April 30th. You won’t regret it.

Buzz-Feeders: Why Art and Capitalism Should Play By Different Rules

Bernie Sanders, Jane Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and wife Jane walk in Times Square on their way to see the Broadway show Hamilton, Friday, April 8, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

A strange thing happened the other day: Bernie Sanders went to a performance of Hamilton. A presidential candidate going to a Broadway show isn’t the strange part. The strange part is *this* presidential candidate going to *this* broadway show. Bernie Sanders, champion of the people, advocate for the little guy…the man leading the assault on a rigged system of privilege and wealth inequality.

That guy, somehow, scored a ticket to the hottest Broadway show ever. Hamilton, a show that is completely sold out for the next nine months, which requires a convoluted lottery system for tickets, and which keeps breaking records on secondary ticket market sites such as StubHub. Bernie Sanders used his position and privilege to score seats at a show which most Americans can’t see because they can’t afford. Nice.

But before all the Bernie Bros start swarming…this is not a rant against Bernie Sanders. I actually think it’s great that a presidential candidate decided to make attending the performing arts part of his campaign. We could use more of that from the other candidates in the race.

The issue that the Hamilton craze brings to light is an important one. The show has done what every show wants to do: it is a critical and a box office triumph. Good for Hamilton. (I’d make a Hamilton reference here—perhaps quote a line from the show or something—but I haven’t seen the show. I can’t get tickets.) But with its success we see, with dramatic clarity, how quickly commerce corrupts art.


If you want to go to Hamilton, but you’re not among the lucky few to have procured your tickets nine months in advance—or through the nearly impossible digital lottery—you then head to the secondary market, where you will pay significantly astronomically more than face value for a ticket.

In fact, on StubHub right now, the cheapest single ticket for a weekend evening performance is $814.35. Plus fees, plus dinner, plus in my case flight and hotel and oh never mind I’m not going.

Tickets to LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s final game are cheaper than Hamilton. Tickets to see the Golden State Warriors potentially break the NBA single season Win-Loss record are slightly more than 1/3 the cost of a ticket to Hamilton.

Hamilton tix


On one hand, score one for The Arts that there is more demand for tickets to a theater show with an ongoing, indefinite run than there is demand for the two most significant NBA games of the last 20 years. On the other hand, the demand has created a situation whereby most people who want to see the show can’t, or won’t, because they either simply don’t have enough money to see it or they’ll choose to spend their money on other things—like a European vacation—instead.

The reality right now is that Hamilton is not a show for everyone. It is only a show for the elite.

Buzz creates demand, demand creates a secondary ticket market where anyone can profit off the artistic achievements of others, and lack of money becomes a barrier to art.

Back in the day, art used to be only available to the aristocracy…or at church. Then, folks like Mozart and Haydn started playing concerts publicly and publishing the music they wrote for the culturally elite, so everyone could experience what they were bringing into the world.

Today, capitalism and commerce has replaced the aristocracy as the thing to deny art from the people.

This is not just a Hamilton problem. This issue exists on smaller scales as well. Big museums charge $20-$30 for admission, the cheapest seats for concerts by major orchestras are also in that range, but it’s half that price to get into a Major League Baseball game. A night at the ballpark makes more financial sense for most people than a night at the theater or symphony.

So, with the base prices for access to art being double the base prices for access to live sporting events, I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising that the truly buzzworthy arts events cost more than their sports counterparts.

Still, it’s unfortunate. While there are numerous arts organizations who are trying to make the arts more accessible financially (the excellent Hammer Museum in Westwood is now free all the time), there are others who exhibit the behavior of the secondary market: upselling their experiences to create buzz, capitalizing on that buzz, and monetizing that buzz.

[Case study: the hottest performing arts ticket in LA last year was for Hopscotch, a mobile opera performed in limousines and various diverse locations around town. Tickets started at $125. A lottery was established and a lucky few were able to get in for $25.]

hopscotch 2

Where does this leave us? I understand it costs money to put on a show and that ticket prices offset some of that cost. I understand that manufacturing “An Event” is necessary to get attention in a world with infinite entertainment options. However, it is possible to create buzz without pricing people out of an artistic experience.

[Case study: the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra performed recently at a club-like venue in Downtown LA. They gave away piles of tickets mostly to young millennials, who probably wouldn’t have attended a concert of music by Schoenberg otherwise. The line went out the door and the concert was delayed because so many people came to see the spectacle. People felt like they were part of a really cool event and afterwards said they were much more likely to attend a classical concert in the future because of it.]


I guess in a country where start-ups and entrepreneurs are king, I suppose I should just let the market be the market. But, to me, art should be a little more sacred than that. Art reflects who we are as human beings; art shapes the human experience; art helps us make sense of our all-too-complicated existence. Art should not be subject to the whims of the marketplace. Access to art should not depend on one’s level of privilege. Art should be accessible to everyone—from Bernie Sanders to you and me.

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.