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!

Here Are The Best Beatles Covers On Spotify

beatles-abbey-road_2220576bYou’re welcome.

There are nearly 250 Beatles covers here. That adds up to more than 14 hours of music. So, you could hop in your car and drive from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon without hearing the same song twice.

I’ve put it in alphabetical order, so it’s easy to find a specific song. (At least I thought I did, but that’s not the way it’s showing up in the embedded playlist.) If you’d just like to listen, I recommend putting it on shuffle and going along for the (ticket to) ride.

A few highlights:

  • Otis Redding losing his mind on “A Hard Day’s Night,” live at the Whisky a Go Go
  • Brad Mehldau’s perfect improvisations on “Because” and “Dear Prudence”
  • Two very different versions of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” (Fats Domino and The Feelies)
  • “Yesterday,” arranged for classical guitar by the contemporary Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu
  • Youssou N’Dour performing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
  • Johnny Cash’s wonderful and poignant “In My Life”
  • William Shatner’s take on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which is everything you’d expect it to be
  • Speaking of L in the S with D, perhaps my favorite one of the whole bunch: The Flaming Lips featuring Miley Cyrus and Moby
  • A not-so-subtly political “Happiness is a Warm Gun” by Tori Amos
  • Several covers from Rita Lee, including “Here, There, and Everywhere” sung in Portuguese
  • Plus: Bono, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Phish, Michael Jackson, Yo-Yo Ma, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, The Beach Boys, David Bowie, Little Richard, Rufus Wainwright, Sonic Youth, She & Him, Tom Petty, and many many more.

As I said earlier, you’re welcome.


5 Things I’m Listening to Right Now

Giant-SpeakerWelcome to a new periodic feature on the blog, where I will be asking musicians, writers about music, composers, and all manner of musically-connected people to share a few (oh, say, five) pieces of music that happen to be on high-rotation in their playlists. The musical world is vast. We will never be able to listen to it all. But the act of sharing what inspires us, makes us weep, or helps us escape is a beautiful act of community.

I’ll start.

1. Ravel: Sunrise, from Daphnis et Chloé – Of all the depictions of sunrise in classical music (and there are many), this is by far my favorite. I’m rarely finicky about my suspended cymbal interpretations, but in this particular piece, only this recording with the Berlin Philharmonic and Pierre Boulez will do. Sorry, everyone else. Make them hit it harder.

2. Baths: Apologetic Shoulder Blades – A few nights ago, my wife and I had some friends over for dinner. We played a game of word association to make the evening’s playlist. Four people; four rounds. The 16 words we generated became the search terms for songs or artists, from which I built a playlist without previewing any of the songs. One of the words was “shoulder.” (Don’t ask.) From that, came our introduction to a fellow from Tarzana named Will Wiesenfeld, who goes by the stage name of Baths. None of us knew his music. All of us liked it. #MusicDiscovery!

3. Valentin Silvestrov: The Messenger – With a mix of sadness, horror, and inspiration for the power of the human spirit, I have been following the demonstrations in Ukraine. As violence ramped up in recent weeks, I found myself turning to the immensely peaceful music of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. An emotional juxtaposition, to be sure. This is one of Silvestrov’s best-known works–a Mozartian mix of haunting, halting, almost uncomfortable phrases and pauses. And, oh so beautiful.

4. Beady Eye: Flick of the Finger – This is angrier protest music. And damned if it doesn’t get me fired up.

5. Alexander Scriabin: Le Poème de l’extase – The Canadian ice dancing team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (yes, I watched ice dancing during the Olympics, what of it?) choreographed a routine to what was billed at Glazunov’s The Seasons. That was ostensibly true, however, there were a couple of other pieces of music that were cut in to the music, including 3-4 measures of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in the middle of the dance and, at the end, the closing moments of Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Concerto in f-sharp minor. Glazukovbin? Scrikovunov? Whatever. But that got me re-listening to Scriabin’s music, of which I’m a pretty big fan. The Piano Concerto, by the way, is great. As are the symphonies. However, I always find myself coming back to this suitable-for-blasting Poem of Ecstacy, which Henry Miller once described as “a bath of ice, cocaine, and rainbows.” He might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.

I just spent 31 of your hard-earned dollars and you will thank me for it later

I’ve been working on my click-bait headlines. How am I doing, UpWorthIt?

Okay, emotional manipulation aside, there are many ways you could spend $31. You could buy this crow bar…this Himalayan Salt Lamp which is also an air-purifier (huh?)…two of these Runny Nose Shower Gel Dispensers, one for your shower and another for the kids’ shower, I suppose.

ORYou could choose to spend your $31 by hooking yourself up with two of the best recordings to come humanity’s way in a long, long time. (I know, I know…you crazy kids these days with your Napsterfy and your Rhapsodora accounts. You scoff when I suggest you “buy” a “recording.”)

Coincidence that they both involve the music of Igor Stravinsky? (To the millennials, that’s iGor.) Probably not.

The first is this unassuming-looking release from Steinway & Sons. Yes, the piano makers now have a record label.

JennyLinStravinskyJenny Lin, who seems to specialize in performing music by “Composers I Like,” (Shostakovich, Silvestrov, Stravinsky, Seeger, and others whose names don’t start with S) has turned her attention to a lesser-known side of the man who brought us The Rite of Spring. Probably the most famous selection on this recording are the three movements from The Firebird, which give the Taiwanese-born American pianist a chance to display her awesome power at the keyboard. These movements don’t always work as solo piano pieces, but in Lin’s fingers (wrists, arms, shoulders), it’s spine-tingling.

Everything on this album is excellent, so I’ll draw your attention to three more of my favorite moments:

  • the Sonata from 1924, which sounds like it could be from 1724 and written by a fellow whose middle name is Sebastian.
  • the Etudes, which predate The Firebird. You know, from before he got famous.
  • the all-too-brief Sketches of a Sonata, from just a couple years before Stravinsky died. About 30 seconds of what-if, from Stravinsky’s LA years.

Jenny Lin: Stravinsky Solo Piano Works is out 2.25.14. You should buy it. You’re welcome.

Here’s the other recording you should buy:

BadPlusRiteYes, this is a piano-bass-drums don’t-call-it-jazz trio doing “the most important piece of music of the 20th century” (Lenny). There are many excellent versions of The Rite, but if you ask me (did you?), this is the greatest of them all. Second only to iGor’s original, of course. All three players employ dazzling special effects: pizzicato trills on the double bass, eerie high-pitched squeals and all manner of grunts/groans from percussion instruments being played in unorthodox ways, and general bad-assery from the piano.

In fact, everything about this Rite by The Bad Plus is badass. At first, you think to yourself, Oh, they can’t possibly pull that off, but then you keep listening and realize that you are totally hearing a recording of them pulling it off–like for real–and here they are, reconvincing you of everything you’ve always known about the explosive innovations of the original Rite and when it all comes crashing to a chaotic halt half an hour later, you think to yourself: Holy shit. So that’s what it felt like to hear The Rite for the first time back when it was new.

And here you are, hearing it like new, 101 years later. You lucky bastard.

The Rite of Spring, by The Bad Plus, is out 3.25.14. You should buy it. You’re welcome.

Come Inside: The LA Phil’s 2014 Throws A Giant Welcome Mat At Disney Hall’s Doorstep

wdch-view-from-courthouse_hiIn the LA Times this morning, LA Philharmonic president and CEO Deborah Borda said, “We’ve got the youngest audience in America, but it’s got to get younger.” The LA Phil’s new 2014-15 season—just announced today—is a concerted and concrete effort to that end.

Recently, the orchestra has conducted research that has shown that cultural consumers who have not purchased LA Phil tickets are interested in an educational component or experience affiliated with the concert. The LA Phil’s research found that 25% of new ticket buyers felt that they didn’t know enough about classical music to fully enjoy it or even which concerts they would like.

Enter “in/SIGHT.” A new multimedia series that pairs new work by prominent video artists, like Refik Anadol and Finn Ross, with major works from classical composers, including Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland and Steve Reich’sThree Tales.

Inside the Music with Brian Lauritzen, and will give subscribers an immersive educational approach to the concert hall experience. The series has several components:

– Prior to each performance, we will release a video online for on-demand streaming that provides a way in to the stories of each concert’s repertoire.

– Then comes the educational meat: a pre-concert talk where we will dive deeply into the music for each of the performances.

– The concert hall experience will remain untouched. This is traditional concert-going in all its glory. Two concerts conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, a world premiere, a US premiere, a rarely heard Prokofiev Symphony, and more.

– Afterwards, we will have an opportunity to talk about what we’ve just experienced. I’ll host an on-stage Q&A session with the audience and some of the performers involved in the music-making. Your chance to connect more meaningfully with the music you’ve just heard.

– Additionally, there will be an online community forum for those of us who wish to connect in more depth.

I’m very excited about this new series and am looking forward to exploring the music together with new and seasoned concertgoers alike.

In all, 2014-15 is another ambitious season for the LA Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel’s sixth season as music director. You can see the entire lineup of concerts here.

Do Not Give a Dollar to the Opera: A Takedown

Opera Mose in EgittoThis week, Gawker–the website that has brought us such gems as “The Top Nine Videos Of Babies Farting And/Or Laughing With Kittens” and “I Can’t Stop Looking at This Weird Chinese Goat“–published an article with the headline “Do Not Give a Dollar to the Opera.” I have copied and pasted the “meat” (read: three-day-old cafeteria mystery loaf) of the article below. Do not feel obligated to click on any of the above links, as page views are the lifeblood of Gawker. I have only linked to these stories to prove they actually exist.

In “Do Not Give a Dollar to the Opera,” Hamilton Nolan–who has brought us such gems as “Most Households Bizarrely Still Have a Landline” and “The Scariest Man Alive Wears A Cardigan“–basically copies a few of the questionable ideas from this New York Times article and puts it in a convenient bullet point list. The list is below. My rebuttals are in bold.

  • Opera may not be your cup of tea, or mine, but opera is some people’s cup of tea, and it can be great, as an art form, just as all other art forms can be. In general, a flourishing and diverse art scene in a city is a good thing. Not a bad start. My only quibble here–other than the innate preciousness–is the phrase, “In general,” which implies, “Usually, but not always…” But I say “a flourishing and diverse art scene” is always a good thing.
  • However, in a world of limited money and resources, we must make choices. A dollar given to one cause is a dollar not given to another cause. The relatively small number of people wealthy enough to give large sums of money to charitable causes are in high demand. The need of charitable causes for funding far exceeds the available funds at any given time. Translation: Because there isn’t enough money in the world to solve all of the world’s problems, we should not contribute to any of them.
  • Continue reading

Yo-Yo Ma: “Part of creativity is accepting all the things we don’t know, because that’s when you start to explore.”

ImageThe Urban Dictionary definition is as follows:

goat rodeo (noun): 1. A chaotic situation, often one that involves several people, each with a different agenda/vision/perception of what’s going on.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s definition is a little bit different: “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.” It’s a proposition that is equal parts skill, logic, and luck. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is an album from a quartet of world-class musicians that tests the limits of all three of these elements.Image

As if heading into a recording studio and rolling tape on this chance-based experiment wasn’t dangerous enough, Yo-Ya Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan have taken the show on the road and are doing it live. They’ll be at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night.

Recently, I caught up with Yo-Yo Ma to ask him about this idea of music that comes together against all odds, taking risks on stage, and trying new musical things. You can listen to the conversation here, read the transcript below, or catch the radio feature Saturday at 8a on KUSC’s Arts Alive.


BL: I’d like to start with something that Chris Thile told me a while ago. He likes to talk about how there should be no genre distinctions in music: he uses the terms “formal” and “informal,” meaning formal music is written down; informal music is not written down. How do you feel about that? Are genres helpful?

YYM: I think that is a very interesting question. In order to learn, we have to make categories–“I like this; I don’t like this”–but in order to keep learning, you actually have to take away the categories and form new ones. So it is a constant process. Continue reading